But so went the world premiere of Ashoka's Dream at the Santa Fe Opera Saturday. From first to last, it was a true Gesamtkunstwerk - Wagner's ideal union of dramatic, musical and theatrical values. The audience was as much a part of the action as the players, participating in one of the great memory-dreams of the human tribe.
A moving, affecting experience, one to make us realize the true worth in a life of virtue. Never have I seen an SFO audience so attentive.
King Ashoka's attempts to bring compassion and peace to his subjects offered many possibilities but many dangers to librettist Douglas Penick, composer Peter Lieberson and director Stephen Wadsworth. How to tell a story that covered an entire life's work? How much detail would be appropriate? How to show the spiritual influences that propelled Ashoka without winding up with a staid moralistic pageant? How to show the story's Indian background without turning into a historical travelogue?
Their answer was simple and immensely effective: By concentrating not so much directly on Ashoka as on the impact he made on those around him, they brought the character to life within a full human context. One was aware not only of Ashoka's internal struggles - against pride, against battle-glory, transforming sensuality into wisdom - but how he fit (or didn't) into the world around him.
Penick's straightforward, deceptively simple libretto reads a bit dryly on the printed page, but turned out to be perfectly gauged for performance. Every word came across with crystalline clarity, the simple truths in the score gloriously alive, anything but trite. Lieberson's sonorous, transparent score, full of vivid instrumental colors and forward motion, set the words off superbly and provided perfect commentary and support for the action. This is rather conservative music that operates on two levels - in the pit and out to the ear, but also from deep in the heart. The writing is clever and original - not a bad operatic convention to be heard. Among the most notable touches were the sparing but effective use of percussion and bells, the fascinating low woodwind writing and the clever use of the tuba and low brass. In effect, Lieberson treated his large orchestra as a chamber group capable of infinite variety. Compelling music, sensitively conducted by Richard Bradshaw.
Wadsworth directed with no wasted motion and absolute integrity - simple but perfectly rehearsed gestures, solemn but not silly representations of ritual, effective use of ancient Indian dramatic conventions, all springing from the musical impulse.
What was especially fascinating to discover were the many instances of duality explored - Ashoka's two wives and two sons, his four counselors, his other-self charioteer, the Four Elements, the two deaths on stage, the two sides of his wife Lakshmi as first human, then incarnation of Kali, Mother Death. Most interesting.
The production was in keeping, with a simple but very effective unit set by Thomas Lynch and Martin Pakledinaz' brilliantly colored, almost acid-toned costuming. The voluptuously carved background of the set was superbly lit by Amy Appleyard. The final scene, Ashoka's apotheosis, was magnificent theater.
Kurt Ollmann's Ashoka, tense with youthful energy, gradually became more settled in his body through time and maturity. He was a quiet but vivid presence around which the action could revolve. He sang strongly and clearly, at times with great sensitivity; his final aria was inexpressibly moving. Clare Gormley's vivid high soprano as Lakshmi stood in effective contrast to Lorraine Hunt's huge, penetrating mezzo as Triraksha, and they played their disparate roles to the hilt.
The supporting cast was excellent. Greer Grimsley strongly led the fine quartet of ministers, the others being Beau Palmer, John Atkins and Bruce Baumer; the Four Elements of Patricia Johnson, Sara Seglem, Christine Abraham and Beth Clayton sang superbly. Paul Kreider's sage had much nobility of presence and Mark Thomsen made a compelling Girika, the charioteer. The small chorus of apprentice artists prepared by Gary Wedow was top-notch.
Of the three works just commissioned by SFO from American composers - the others being David Lang's 1995 Modern Painters and Tobias Picker's 1996 Emmeline - Ashoka's Dream is by far the best-constructed, the most dramatically viable and the most worthy of future productions. SFO should bend every effort to having this work produced elsewhere.