The opera’s hero is a prince, Segismundo, who must attempt to live in a world from which he was removed at birth. His father, Basilio, a pedantic and frightened king, interprets the portents at Segismundo’s birth to mean that the boy would become a violent and tyrannical ruler. In order to protect himself and his subjects, Basilio exiles the prince to a remote wilderness tower, there to be educated by Clotaldo, a nobleman, but to be kept ignorant of who he is and of those emotional refinements that come from living in human society. Basilio, when Segismundo comes of age, has second thoughts. Maybe the stars were wrong. Or, perhaps will is stronger than fate. Basilio orders that the prince be drugged and brought to court. If he is good he will remain and inherit the throne; if not, he will be drugged once again and sent back to the tower, where he will be made to believe that what he saw was only a dream.
Clotaldo recounts to the king how Segismundo was given a potion and brought to the palace. Segismundo, still in a daze but heaped with princely adornments, is born in on a litter. Clotaldo and the entourage welcome him to court; dancers entertain him. Clarín does a magic trick, and the court choir sings to him. Segismundo, awake at last, exclaims at his new surroundings. Clotaldo tries to explain how all this came about, but is immediately set upon by Segismundo for his past treatment. A servant scolds Segismundo for his lack of respect and is threatened by Segismundo. Astolfo, Segismundo’s cousin and pretender to the throne, introduces himself and is greeted coolly. Once again the servant begins to instruct Segismundo and is further threatened. Estrella, another ambitious cousin, appears; Segismundo is aroused and ardently kisses her hand. The servant scolds yet again; Segismundo snaps, grabs the servant, and hurls him off the balcony to his death on the rocks below. Amid the general horror Basilio appears and, for the first time, father and son meet face to face. After a fierce confrontation Basilio admonishes, “Be humble, for perhaps you’re dreaming even while awake.” Segismundo ponders his situation and recognizes that he is a “man who is also a beast.” The act closes with his sudden attraction and overbearing approach to Rosaura, Clotaldo’s daughter, an unhappy noblewoman whose fate is linked to his. A fight ensues, first with Clotaldo, then with Astolfo. After Segismundo is subdued, Basilio appears once again. This climactic encounter between father and son leaves Segismundo spent and confused and Basilio convinced that there remains no choice but to return Segismundo to exile. Segismundo falls limp; he is dragged from court, followed slowly by the entourage. Rosaura remains alone to muse on his sad quandary.
As Segismundo awakens from his stupor he begins to doubt his ability to discern reality. His memories of the splendor of the court are vivid—but perhaps, as he is repeatedly told, it was all a dream. Basilio’s subjects, aware now of the spirit and boldness of their prince, are prepared to forgive him for his wildness in court and proclaim his successor to the throne in preference to rule by the distrusted foreigners Astolfo and Estrella. A rebel army forms and seeks out Segismundo at his tower, where they urge him to join and lead a revolt which will overthrow his father and give him the throne. Segismundo is at first enticed by the thought if triumph and vengeance for his treatment but collapses again into uncertainty—agreeing at last, and with much urging, to take on the fight. At the moment of his triumph, again unsure of his very existence, he relents. Basilio, mistaking Segismundo’s collapse of identity for humility, declares him fit to rule and proclaims, for reasons of state, plans for his marriage to Estrella. Segismundo, bleached of will and self, acquiesces, a “good” prince renouncing his love for Rosaura for the sake of social order—which, may be only a dream.
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John Cheek (King Basilio)
Roger Honeywell (Segismundo)
James Maddalena (Clotaldo)
Ellie Dehn (Rosaura)