Saturday's matinee here at the Ft. Worth Opera was the professional world premiere of Daniel Crozier and Peter M. Krask performed in the intimate black box space in the McDavid Studio next to Bass Hall. I always love the new works that are brought to this space, and since I can't attend the Frontiers program later this week, this was my only chance to see in-your-face opera with a full house of only a couple hundred folks. WITH BLOOD, WITH INK is a superb telling of the story of the Mexican poet, artist and just plain genius of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and the production directed by DONA D. VAUGHN with a superb set by ERHARD ROM and costumes by Austin Scarlett was just perfect in this space.
Sor Isabel-Corrie Donovan
Sor Rosa-Clara Nieman
The Dying Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz-Sandra Lopez
Maria Luisa-Audrey Babcock
The Young Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz-Vanessa Becerra
Padrr Antonio Nunez de Miranda-Ian McEuen
Sor Andrea de la Encarnacion-Meaghan Deiter
Archbishop Aguiar y Seijas-Jesse Enderle
The unit set for this 90+ minute work consisted of a very Mexican looking diamond patter leather-esque floor of red and black. At the center a small period upholstered chair and table with jeweled box on it. Behind a large 15' high wooden crucifix with gilded Jesus on it. To the left a bed with some pillows and behind it an oversize 7 foot high wooden candle-holder (like the big ones on altars). At the rear are seven arches with a blood red curtain behind them. In the area to the left rear is the orchestra and at the center arch is a bookcase with oversize tomes piled on the floor.
The composer has cleverly created nine scenes each titled and framed with a part of the requiem mass. Prior to the start, the chorus of nuns walk at the rear and sides of the bleacher-style seating which is on three sides of the stage and for each section they move around and behind us creating a different sound for each part as well.
They chant requiem aeternum to start from the platform behind us giving a very eerie feel. The two nuns (Rosa & Isabel) are attending the dying Juana who in a feverish state jolts up in her bed as the music changes. She is in a burlap-like nightgown with head shaved, exuding humility; in an aria format she tells her story to us and the scenes change to proceed showing us her youth in the Viceroy's palace in Mexico.
Scene ii has the elegantly gowned Maria Luisa, the viceroy's wife, and Juana's patron-cum-mother opening the jewel box we saw from the start. Her hair is all done up (Steven Bryant did an amazing job not only on all her different wigs, but with the entire cast, especially both Juanas) with a feather in it. Young Juana enters with flowing hair in a gown with floral appliques. At this time the two Juanas music and words are often echoed by on to the other or vice versa, Sometimes they are in sync, sometimes not. Maria Luisa warns the young girl that her knowledge is dangerous and urges her to marry. Juana knows that marriage will stunt her chance to learn and educate herself, so she chooses the convent. Padre Antonio arrives to announce how happy he is to have Juana in the convent; but then we realize he may have different motives as she bargains to continue her education as she discovers he is a self-flagellating hypocrite.
The bed is turned into a large table at the center for the next scene. Young Juana enters at center in a long gauzy veil with the nuns to the left and right in line. The nuns remove her elegant gown to reveal a plain white cotton one underneath and they then cut her hair (how they did this without wrecking the wig was totally convincing as I was only several feet away from the action!). The prioress, Sor Andrea administers the vows and both the Juanas intone "I pledge myself" to each one. Juana chooses her name as "Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz" which is a motif that is repeated throughout the opera and prostrates herself on the floor (which hinted at the famous scene from the Dexter production of Dialogues of the Carmelites).
The nuns move near the orchestra for their opening intonation of scene iv, "lux aeterna." Sor Rosa discusses Juana's lack of faith, but the Padre calls in Juana and she declares that God abides in her and in all things, at which he scoffs. In an amazing display he is aside tearing off his top and whipping himself as Juana is at the center proclaiming the omnipresence of God. A gorgeous trio ensues with both Juanas and the Padre each proclaiming their beliefs, the elder Juana knowing now after many years that "God is a box" and Young Juana declaring she now has a choice to "learn or burn." Sor Andrea breaks it all up and slaps Sisters Rosa & Isabel, but stops short of doing so as she approaches to rebuke Juana; the Padre warns Juana to take care. Maria Luisa's visit to the convent is announced and she enters in another wig, jewels, elegant gown, hat and gloves.
The visit continues in Juana's cell with a large writing table and the books of her massive library behind her. She has a guitar (she was also known as a musician), but all I could think of was the Singing Nun (sorry)! Rosa leads in Maria Luisa declaring that the nuns' "chant was enchanting" who proceeds to tell Juana that she is going back to Spain. As both Juanas read the sonnets she has written, the Padre sneaks in and overhears that Maria Luisa will take the works back to Spain to be published. Maria Luisa gives Juana a small part of her jeweled necklace and takes her leave.
The Padre bursts in as Juana is without her wimple and accuses her of many things including being a whore. Juana bravely discloses that her works are so worthy, they will now be published. He has more accusations of vanity and Juana declares, "Stupidity is not confined to women alone..." She kicks him out of her cell and breaks down crying.
The sixth short scene has Young Juana composing an introduction to her book in a letter to Maria Luisa ("Why must I be less than a man"), as Old Juana dreams of the freedoms to come. This leads to a ballet/interlude in which a little girl (very young Juana) comes in wearing a dress similar to Young Juana's at the start. She is joined by six young girls who dance around her in a circle. They have some kind of toy, which the Padre tries to steal but cannot get inside the circle. The 6 girls then dance with candles on their heads in subdued lighting...the scene melts into the Dies Irae of scene vii. where the nuns prattle about the Archbishop coming. The haughty prelate arrives in flowing red gown and cape with white lace and gold trim and says he has heard about the "Phoenix of America." Young Juana sings of her gift and the Archbishop drops a copy of her book at her feet as she declares she will die alone if they will not allow her to renew her vows (this was a tradition for each nun after 25 years in the convent--so 25 years have passed since the second scene). There is massive dissonance in the strings and for the first time there is a intensity of dire danger in the music. Young Juana sits down at her desk and writes as Old Juana looks on lovingly from the floor. Young Juana encloses the jewel from Maria Luisa in the letter and has one of the sisters deliver it to the Padre. He is clearly elated with this as Juana has agreed to renew her vows, whatever they need be.
The eight scene has Young Juana tearing out the pages of her books and writings as Old Juana gasps in horror. Sor Andrea arrives to administer the vows, but the Padre asks to do it instead. The Archbishop arrives and apologizes for being late as the peasants are starving from famine. Again both Juanas repeatedly declare, "I pledge myself," to each vow uttered by the Padre culminating in the vows of enclosure (I assume solitude), and silence, which the Padre almost yells. Young Juana prostrates herself again as old Juana declares, "I execute myself." Young Juana sings extensively, "I give up myself and give up my pen....I will not write again."
Back at the desk Juana is asked to sign the vows and takes a blade from the Archbishop and as she cuts her hand, Old Juana and Young Juana's hands bleed in the same place as Young Juana sings her vows with her own blood. The Archbishop says he wills end someone to take her books as the Padre sneers with triumphant glee. Young Juana breaks her feather pens and tears up her books as she cries, taking her own tome last with "Do not marvel at the silence you find in me. I will burn brightly in the fire of silence." WOW! She violently tears at her own work and drops to the floor with Old Juana who binds the younger Juana's wound.
The lights fade and Old Juana is left at center in a spotlight for the final scene and the same framing as scene i with "requiem aeternum." She returns to her deathbed and we have the groan from the opening scene as the nuns kneel beside her. Old Juana utters, "Never fear to be destroyed" and dies. There are church-like chimes from the orchestra as the entire cast proceed in a funeral procession. They lay Juana out and cover her with a sheet placing a small wooden cross on top. All the nuns take candles and surround her as Young Juana enters without her wimple and kneels beside the body. She pulls back the sheet moving aside the cross and places a copy of her own book on the corpse's chest and recovers it and replaces the cross. As the final notes of the requiem are intoned, Young Juana raises her arms to heaven and intones the motif of her taken name, "Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz."
I can't say enough about moving this work is and what an amazing job EVERYONE in the cast did; it was a true ensemble with everyone big and small role perfectly filled; even the small orchestra and maestro were superb. The music is oh so worthy and if you can get to Ft Worth there are performances tonight as well as Tues May 6, Fri May 9 and a final matinee Saturday May 10. DON'T MISS IT!
Today's matinee--the local premiere of SILENT NIGHT
ALAN SAVADA of Washington, DC
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