Catalan director Calixto Bieito’s The Great Theatre of the World is a lavish contemporary baroque opera based on 17th century playwright Calderón de la Barca’s (1600 – 1681) textual “experiment” Life is a Dream (1635/6): an epic contemplation of fate and free will, fact and fiction and the meaning of life in general.
An almost-contemporary of Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), Pedro Calderón la Barca lived at the latter end of the ‘Siglo de Oro’, the so-called Spanish Golden Age when the economy blossomed after the bloody conquest of the Americas, and Spanish arts and literature were heavily subsidised by its Habsburg rulers Philip II and III. The painters Diego Velazquez and El Greco, the dramatist Lope de Vega, and the writer Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote) were all of the period. It was a time of almost continual war.
A soldier, a Roman Catholic priest – and an incorrigible depressive – Calderón was remarkably varied in his writing producing comedies, cloak and dagger suspense, musical zarzuelas or combining the genres. His ‘Auto Sacramental’ plays, of which Life is a Dream is his most debated, pits protagonists against each other and their own personal-universal human dilemmas, tossing them out onto radical scenography and into plots inspired by the mad Greek classics (Oedipus).
In the original version, set in Poland, Prince Segismundo spends two decades imprisoned in a tower by the king, because an oracle has prophesised that he’d make a mess of the kingdom. When finally released, the repressed prince goes mental smashing things and attempting to rape Rosaura, a jilted cross-dressing Muscovite seeking revenge on her ex. The prince is, subsequently, drugged and locked up in his tower again, and on waking concludes that the outing was a figment of his imagination.
Eventually, public opinion prevails and a mob storm the tower to free the oblivious prince. Learning from his experiences, Segismundo is compassionate with the king and even reunites Rosaura with her lover, whose reluctance is overcome by the chance discovery that she is nobility. And entwined with this eyebrow-raising plot, is the complex philosophy behind the play. To paraphrase the lines of Segismundo:
“What is life? A frenzy.
What is life? An illusion.
Dreams are themselves merely the dreams of dreams …”
The Great Dark Theatre
Calixto Bieito, known for his radical interpretations of the classics, makes a “multi-sensorial experience” (Bieito) of the play, which is performed to the compositions of equally unusual Valencian pianist Carles Santos, and the words of Marc Rosich, in German and in Spanish. Characters lose their names and become representative figures: The World (Claudia Schneider), Discretion (Iris Melamed), The Law of Grace (Jana Havranová). Presiding over the piece is ‘The Author’, sung by top Catalan countertenor Xavier Sabata, who orders a rabble of mortals to act out his play, without giving them scripts or stage directions. The set, designed by Rebecca Ringst, is a nightclubby cathedral, where the silver pipes of a dismembered organ meet their shadow jaws on a slick black stage …