By Mike Greenberg
FORT WORTH – Composer Daniel Crozier and librettist Peter M. Krask were graduate students at Peabody Conservatory when they created an opera based on the life of the 17th-century poet, feminist, and nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz for a single student performance in 1993. With Blood, With Ink saw occasional student performances in succeeding years, but the work languished without a professional staging until the Fort Worth Opera Festival rectified the oversight with a handsomely staged and well-sung production that opened on April 20, Easter Sunday.
Staged in McDavid Studio, an intimate black-box space in an annex of the mainstage Bass Performance Hall, With Blood, With Ink proved a remarkably vital and stageworthy work. Despite the youth of Crozier and Krask when they conceived it, virtually every creative decision was so astutely gauged that you might think they were already old hands at the opera game.
Juana de Asbaje y Ramirez was born around 1648 near Mexico City to a Spanish captain (who apparently had no continuing role in her life) and a Criollo woman. A child prodigy, she learned to read at three and plowed through the books in her maternal grandfather’s library before being sent to live with an aunt in Mexico City at about the age of 11. At 16 she became a maid-in-waiting to the vicereine, and over the next five years gained a reputation for her poetry and a towering intellect. During this period Ramirez briefly entered the Convent of the Discalced Carmelites of St. Joseph but found their discipline too rigid.
In 1669 she entered the more liberal convent of San Jerónimo and took the name Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. In 1680 a new viceregal couple was installed at Mexico City, and Sor Juana struck up a close friendship with the new vicereine, Maria Luisa, 11th Countess of Paredes. After Maria Luisa returned to Spain, she arranged for publication in Madrid of an anthology of Sor Juana’s poetry. Meanwhile, Sor Juana branched out into secular plays. But Maria Luisa’s departure left Sor Juana without noble protection from the misogynistic and reactionary archbishop of Mexico. Increasingly under pressure to cease writing, she eventually gave in, supposedly signing with her own blood a document repenting of her literary work.
The opera – a single act in nine scenes lasting about 100 minutes — begins and ends with Sor Juana on her deathbed. In the intervening flashback scenes, the dying Sor Juana (soprano Sandra Lopez) shadows the young Sor Juana (soprano Vanessa Becerra), sometimes commenting on the action from her wiser and sadder perspective. Dona D. Vaughn’s stage direction manages the two Sor Juanas and the shifting time frames with great care. Passages from Sor Juana’s poetry, in Margaret Sayers Peden’s beautiful English translation, are woven through some of the scenes.
With Blood, With Ink is drama, not a documentary, and Krask’s libretto intelligently compresses the facts. The character Maria Luisa (mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock) conflates three distinct individuals in Sor Juana’s life, and Padre Antonio (here a self-flagellating sick puppy who is Sor Juana’s duplicitous confessor, sung by tenor Ian McEuen) conflates two. A discreet veil is dropped over Sor Juana’s ownership of a slave, a gift from her mother, to serve her in the convent.
Crozier’s music draws from many sources, including liturgical chant (for the chorus of nuns), neoclassical modernism, and, occasionally, Mexican indigenous music. The music is always closely tailored to the characters and the situation: Padre Antonio’s music is rhythmically eccentric and disturbed, Maria Luisa’s warm, lyrical, and noble. The two Sor Juanas are carefully differentiated, and the music for young Sor Juana follows a clear trajectory from naïve, somewhat prideful vivacity to increasingly complex and shaded maturity. Arias and ensembles are consistently well-made – flattering to the voices and dramatically pointed. When the young Sor Juana cuts her wrist and signs the renunciation in blood, the dissonant orchestral backdrop is the very image of despair.
Among the cast, Becerra made the strongest impression, but the entire cast was more than agreeable.
Timothy Myers conducted the small orchestra (drawn from the Fort Worth Symphony) with considerable sensitivity. Erhard Rom’s set design, based in part on Miguel Cabrera’s well-known 1750 painting, places an overflowing bookcase at center stage, with an oversized crucifix looming at stage left. Austin Scarlett’s costume designs were carefully observed from historical precedents.
On April 19 in Bass Performance Hall, the festival made a good case for the vocal pleasures, at least, of Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, still struggling to emerge from the shadow of the same composer’s later Carmen.
The Pearl Fishers is known most widely for its one hit, the duet “Au fond du temple saint,” in which the Ceylonese fishermen Zurga and Nadir, once rivals for a woman’s hand, pledge friendship for each other. But Nadir’s “Je crois entendre encore” is also fairly familiar, and the rest of the music is no slouch. The virginal Leila closes Act I with a deliciously florid aria, sung here with confident agility and satiny purity by soprano Hailey Clark. The Act II music is less tunesmithy but makes solid dramatic points.
Why, then, is The Pearl Fishers not more popular? Lots of reasons. Its exoticism fell out of fashion, the story is thin, the characters are cardboard, and, most unforgivably, the soprano does not die at the end. In the revised ending used in Fort Worth, Zurga has a dying aria (he’s speared in punishment for allowing the lovers Leila and Nadir to go free), but nobody ever says “The opera ain’t over till the hunky baritone sings.”
The hunky baritone in this case was Lee Poulis, who sang stirringly with a somewhat dark instrument that he used for very effective vocal characterization. As Nadir, tenor Sean Panikkar displayed ample power and sometimes a limpid beauty but, too often, a want of refinement. The honeyed bass of Justin Hopkins was listenable in the role of the high priest Nourabad.
Joe Illick’s conducting was workmanlike but not very shapely. Roberto Oswald’s set design, from Opera Carolina, was spare but reasonably eye-filling. John de los Santos’ stage direction was little more than traffic management, and his choreography for six dancers seemed artificially grafted onto the proceedings. More pleasurable was a troupe of Indian folk dancers that held forth in the lobby during intermission.
With Blood, with Ink has eight additional performances through May 10. The Pearl Fishers repeats on May 2. Mozart’s Così fan tutte has additional performances on May 3 and 11. The regional premiere of Kevin Puts’ and Mark Campbell’s Silent Night, a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2011 opera about the Christmas Eve truce during World War I, has two performances, on May 4 and 10.
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Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.