Fort Worth Opera
Conductor – Timothy Myers
Director – Dona D. Vaughn
Scenic Designer – Erhard Rom
Costume Designer – Austin Scarlett
Lighting Designer – Sean Jeffries
Wig and Makeup Designer – Steven Bryant
Stage Manager – Joe Gladstone
Assistant Director – David Gutierrez
Repetiteur and Chorus Master – Stephen Carey
Dying Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz – Sandra Lopez
Young Juana – Vanessa Becerra
Padre Antonio Nuñez de Miranda – Ian McEuen
María Luisa, Countess de Paredes – Audrey Babcock
Archbishop Aguiar Y Seijas– Jesse Enderle
Sor Isabel – Corrie Donovan
Sor Rosa – Clara Nieman
Reviewed Performance 5/26/2014
Reviewed by Laurie Lynn Lindemeier, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
In a mere two hours, audience members seated in the intimate McDavid Studio witnessed the astounding true-life story of a 17th century Mexican nun through the condensed and potent genre of the one-act opera, With Blood, With Ink. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, an illegitimate daughter, and gifted writer, dreamed her life before us in Fort Worth Opera Festival’s exquisite professional world premiere of this work.
The self-educated scholarly nun is credited to be the first published feminist of the New World. Although this opera depicting Sor Juana’s life first appeared in 1993 when the creators were graduate students, the controversies it addresses are still hot topics twenty years later. The long historic rule of the Catholic Church, same-sex love, and equality in education for women are all examined.
With Blood, With Ink makes one think, ponder and perhaps evolve while bathing one’s musical senses in harmonies that haunt and tonalities that torture. Composer Daniel Crozier and librettist Peter Krask have created a gripping yet lyrical opera, which as the program notes written by Krask himself relay, contains “…music, moving freely between expansive lyric tonality and the heightened drama of atonality. But always the emphasis remains on fully embracing operatic forms…”.
As the chorus of nuns solemnly circled the audience and chanted at the beginning of each scene, we were surrounded by segments of the Requiem Mass. The Latin sounds hovered in the air like incense. The nuns intoned in unison, but their individual voices could be distinguished and savored. Each was adorned with extra-large crosses and decorative plaques hanging round their necks.
The lush orchestration of the chamber orchestra conducted by Timothy Myers produced the delicate sounds of a trickling harp, a sliding sorrowful violin, and a menacing timpani boom. At the hands of Myers’ baton the instruments provided a sound background which complimented the singers well. However, it did take until halfway through the first scene for their volume to tone down and allow us to hear dying Sor Juana’s voice, sensitively sung by Sandra Lopez. Lopez has a rich mezzo voice, but almost as gripping was her sense of the literary lady’s soul and pained facial expressions. Many times she mirrored the motions of her younger self and even sang duets with her.
The set was a character by itself. Scenic designer Erhard Rom positioned a massive golden crucifix on the right, a huge single candlestick on the left and an overflowing bookcase in the center, highly symbolic of the knowledge that spilled from Sor Juana while the church bore down on her from all sides, just as the blood spilled from her hand as she signed her oath and renounced her work with the red ink of herself.
The opera contains nine scenes that are hallucinations of the dying nun. Reminiscent of Emily looking back at her life in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Dying Sor Juana observes herself and relives her life’s joys and sorrows. Her younger self is performed by soprano Vanessa Becerra who has angelic beauty and pure sound. Exuberant youth beams through her smile when she exclaims, “I am pregnant with poetry.” The audience chuckled at this line and also her reply to interrogation about why Eve took the apple, “Perhaps Eve was hungry.” Again and again, Becerra’s incredible high notes pealed with the pureness of the young nun’s spirit and thirst for truth.
The Padre Antonia Nuñez de Miranda, who lords over Sor Juana, is a demanding role, according to my talk with tenor Ian McEuen. He stated, “The most challenging part of singing this role was that he’s so different from who I am.” McEuen was riveting as he nailed the angular melodic lines and volcanic anger of the padre during his highly-charged flogging scene.
There were no weak links in this rosary of performers. The somber nuns who attended the dying Sor Juana were lovingly sung by the clear soprano voice of Corrie Donovan and the full mezzo of Clara Nieman. Audrey Babcock, also a mezzo, sang the role of María Luisa, who has the affection of Sor Juana and protects her as long as she can. Babcock carried her countess character well and elegantly displayed the elaborate gowns designed by celebrity fashion designer and Project Runway alum, Austin Scarlett. Scarlett somehow managed to ride the fine line of simplicity and elaborateness in his unique creations for the 17th century characters. Steven Bryant’s wig designs with grand triangular panels of curls and bright colored ribbons added to her noble effect. Watching the evolution of Young Juana’s hair go from the long tresses to shorn hair as a nun was so effective.
Another stunning but also highly symbolic costume was the flowing magenta robe inlad with white lace worn by the Archbishop Aguiar Y Seijas. Baritone Jesse Enderle swooped through this role with a vampire-like stride. His resonating tones with an eerie hollow sound and black devilish goatee revealed the nature of his Archbishop well.
Director Dona Vaughn did an incredible job guiding the talented cast through the medium of this new yet old story of suppression and the fear of an ardent thirst for knowledge.
A poignant moment occurred when young girls danced with the child Juana. They flitted around her first teasing, then protecting her from the padre’s attack. Lighting designer Sean Jeffries illuminated their soft white gowns with a ghostly black light elevating the feeling to the ethereal. Jeffries also made fine use of spotlights on the singers during their big arias.
This opera echoes a theme of Fort Worth Opera’s production last year, Glory Denied, also presented in the McDavid studio. Both chamber operas haled the human spirit prevailing in the midst of persecution. Sor Juana did not have bars around her, but With Blood, With Ink is a powerful work that celebrates her strength and vision to rise up like the Phoenix and triumph. Her books could be torn up but not her knowledge.
WITH BLOOD, WITH INK
Fort Worth Opera Festival
McDavid Studio (across from Bass Performance Hall)
Corner of Fourth and Calhoun Street
Fort Worth, TX 76102
Remaining performances are May 3rd, 4th, 6th, 9th, and 10th.
The production runs approximately two hours without intermission.
Tickets are $87.00. Military receive a 50% discount. Student rush tickets are available 15 minutes prior to performance. Currently sold out – arrive one hour before show time to be placed on a wait list.
Purchase tickets online at www.fwopera.org or call: 817.731.0726
(Toll Free 1.877.396.7372).