Life is a Dream
Birmingham Opera Company, Argyle Works, Birmingham, March 21
Jonathan Dove’s association with Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company goes back to its beginnings 25 years ago—initially as a répétiteur, later as an arranger and orchestral reducer of The Magic Flute, The Cunning Little Vixen, Falstaff and the company’s celebrated mini-Ring (or Ringlet, as it was nicknamed). He has seen the company transform itself from a small-scale touring troupe into a massive, site-specific operation, playing only in Birmingham, with which Vick can indulge his penchant for Verona-Arena-style casts of thousands—well, hundreds anyway—and for what is now termed ‘immersive’ theatre (the audience promenades and gets caught up in the action).
It was logical that Vick should turn to Dove, one of the most successful of recent opera composers, for the company’s first large-scale commission, Life is a Dream, based on the ‘Golden Age’ drama of the Spanish poet and playwright, Calderón de la Barca. The play, written between 1629 and 1635, could not have been anything but controversial. It tells of a (Polish) King who incarcerates his son because of a prophecy that he would prove a bad ruler. The King’s worst fears are indeed confirmed when he releases the Prince (Segismund) to rule for a day, only for him to attempt to murder his jailor and rape the jailor’s daughter. It must surely have been an unwelcome reminder to the court of the House of Habsburg’s dynastic woes. (Only 60 years before the play was started, Don Carlos, the heir of Philip II—the grandfather of Calderón’s patron, Philip IV—had been incarcerated by his father and died six months later in prison.)
It seemed an odd choice of piece to present as a community opera, although Dove and his librettists managed to create important roles for the chorus and acting extras who comprise the populace that eventually liberates the re-imprisoned Segismund (who in the meantime has fallen in love with Rosaura, his intended rape victim). The ‘People of Poland’ were subdivided by Vick into teams representing the Family Wedding, the Family, Funeral, the Birth Rite, the Family Christmas, the Sleepers (a large number of actors wearing pyjamas who spent much of the evening bedding down on the floor or throwing pillows into the air). For Vick, no doubt, these community performers are an essential component of the BOC experience, but they seemed peripheral to the action, and probably hindered most of the audience’s ability to follow it. We weren’t helped by the lack of any detailed synopsis in the programme, or by the far-flung acting spaces, which also meant that the action was difficult to (literally) follow. In the vast, hangar-like space of the Argyle Works, discernible words were few and far between, and came across only when one was in close proximity to the singers.
Dove’s score sounded his usual mix of post-minimalist eclecticism: the music of John Adams hovers over his pounding rhythmic repetitions. Other influences, Britten and Lloyd-Webber, suggest a no-man’s-land between grand opera and through-composed musical. If his solo vocal lines are not especially ingratiating, his choral writing proved meat and drink to the wonderful amateur chorus—Dove is often at his best when writing for choirs. Vick proved typically resourceful in marshalling his vast forces, using every inch of the available space with striking fixtures designed by Samal Blak—a circular walkway containing the orchestra (conducted by William Lacey), a splendid staircase representing the tower in which Segismund is imprisoned, scaffolding walkways built up against the walls, and a perambulating bed. The hard-working soloists were the remarkable young US bass-baritone Eric Greene (Segismund), Paul Nilon (King Basil), Wendy Dawn Thompson (Rosaura), Keel Watson (Clotaldo), Donna Bateman (Estella) and Joseph Guyton (Astolfo). One certainly got caught up in the crowd scenes of Life is a Dream, but I suspect we will need to see a more intimate staging of what seems a chamber piece, unnecessarily inflated, to discover whether it has the wings of Dove’s earlier Flight and Pinocchio.