S.J. Pettersson's second classical release is an unorthodox opera (with as many instrumental tracks as vocal ones) based on the famous 1901 stage play "A Dream Play" by August Strindberg, one of Strindberg's most admired and influential dramas, seen as an important precursor to both dramatic expressionism and surrealism.
Strindberg himself describes the play this way in his famous preface:
“Everything can happen; everything is possible and likely to happen. Time and space do not exist; on an insignificant foundation of reality the imagination spills out and weaves new patterns - a concoction of memories, experiences, improbabilities and utterly free improvisations. The characters are split in twain, duplicate, multiply and evaporate. They condense, distill and again reunite. But one mind rises above them all. It is the Dreamer; for him there are no secrets, no consistencies, no scruples, no Law. He does not judge, nor gives out pardons but impartially relates the content of the dream itself. And as the dream often painful is, and much less often joyfully free-spirited, there is a tone of sadness and empathy with everything alive in this labyrinthine tale now beginning to unfold…”
The primary character in the play is Agnes, a daughter of the Vedic god Indra. She descends to Earth to bear witness to problems of human beings. She meets about 40 characters, some of them having a clearly symbolical value (such as four deans representing theology, philosophy, medicine, and law). After deciding to experience human life first hand by becoming a human, she experiences all sorts of human suffering such as poverty, cruelty, and the often difficult routine of family life. She marries and has a child but in the end the daughter of gods realizes that human beings are to be pitied and is faced with heartbreaking choice: to return to the Heavens in an attempt to persuade her Father Indra to intervene and ease the suffering of humanity, or to stay on Earth and care for her earthly child. Finally, she returns to the Heaven and this moment corresponds to the awakening from a dream-like sequence of events.
S.J. Pettersson's treatment of the play is to basically tell the story, or often, as is the case with the purely instrumental pieces, through emotions. The scenes are replaced with lyrical narratives, often in first person, and characters just mentioned in passing, comes alive with their own tales. There is no attempt to re-tell the story (which in itself is as difficult to follow and make sense out of as indeed our dreams are) but rather to express it in another medium in the terms of that medium’s capability to reach where the written word is not able to penetrate. The result is almost closer to a song cycle (using 4 different vocal soloists that are all as similar as they are different in character, much like the shifting characters of the play) and with powerful instrumental pieces that in an almost hyper-romantic fashion carry the narrative along with their own emotional contents. The musical style is highly anachronistic but the perhaps biggest influence seems to be Weill’s German operas from the 1920’s blended with elements of Bach, Shubert, Chopin, Prokofiev’s lyrical side, even Shostakovich at time. It is a very accessible work often hiding its harmonic and rhythmical complexity below the surface. The performances throughout are stellar with many of Los Angeles top classical musicians lending their hands and, seemingly, their hearts. The vocal performances are highly unusual and emotionally effective, often sung in “pure tone” avoiding vibrato and with an approach to communicate the often difficult scenes without resorting to obvious vocal tricks and audience pandering. As a result, the suffering seems to be located internally rather than externally which in many ways increases the “personal” aspect of what is a universal condition.
The libretto is poetically very beautiful and in the end leaves the play behind with a final piece, “Hope”, that seems to transfer the words and thoughts from that of Strindberg to the composers own mouth.
Pieces from the Opera have been performed in New York and Los Angeles with a full staging to be performed in New York the fall of 2010.