Fort Worth — Nuns are not uncommon in opera, and death certainly isn’t. So an opera about the death of a nun in the 1600’s Mexico feels made for the art form. This nun was a writer who was silenced by the Inquisition. We can’t have women writing about religious matters? Can we?
With Blood, With Ink, a chamber-sized opera by Daniel Crozier with a libretto by Peter M. Krask is being pForte performs at Bass Performance Hall for the 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festivalresented by the Fort Worth Opera in its world premiere as part of the festival. It is based on the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, who lived in the 17th century. She was a widely admired intellectual and one of the earliest feminists. She was known to the world by her writings that were smuggled out of Mexico by a countess, who had always watched over her as best she could.
The “ink” of the title is a reference to her writings. The “blood” refers to the draconian way the inquisition forced her to sign her confession and renunciation of all of her “dangerous” views. Of course, her works were already “out there” in the “real” world. It was too late to bury her message. However, she kept her word, however it was obtained, to keep her personal silence until her death. It is the moment of that death that we witness in McDavid Studio, next to Bass Performance Hall.
They say that right before you die your entire life flashes in front of you. It may only take a millisecond, but to the dying person, it could feel like it took a very long time—90 minutes in this case. Of course, an intermission would be ludicrous, so we don’t get one. Dying doesn’t take a cocktail break. No, we are hooked into Sor Juana’s conscience and we experience this moment right along with her from the beginning to the end—only better. We also get to watch, from the outside. We see what she sees but we also see Sor Juana herself as she experiences this amazing assessmental augenblick.
While this is technically an opera, in that it is sung throughout and requires operatically trained singers at the top of their game, it is also a theater piece. As such, it requires actors that are on that same outstanding level. The Fort Worth Opera brings us a production that is a combination of operatic and theatrical talent that reaches a critical mass where those arbitrary distinctions of singer or actor vanish.
This is not to say that this is an essentially flawless opera in a proportionately perfect production. Such a thing is probably impossible—what would we do if it is ever achieved?—but this initial staging of With Blood, With Ink greatly exceeds the sum if its parts and becomes extraordinary. While all of the individual performances are marvelous, it is the direction of Dona D. Vaughn that is the roux that holds it all together so a sum can be assessed.
Vaughn’s touch is light, but critical. No movement or gesture that any actor makes in the production happens because of the actor’s motivation. It becomes obvious from the beginning that Old Juana is moving the actors around as she remembers the events. It is, after all, her dream—her vision—and we all know that we can control our dreams, if we have the strength. Admittedly, this is a subtle difference and it is difficult to explain, but it doesn’t take long to see it.
The production opens with Sor Juana on her deathbed. The scenes that follow are the critical moments in her life. Old Juana, portrayed by Sandra Lopez, watches her younger self, portrayed by Vanessa Becerra. This look of amazement on Becerra’s face, when the first memory comes alive hologram-like in her bare room, is so real that we buy into everything that follows. Lopez continues to react to everything that plays out: sometimes silent, other times echoing and in extreme times bursting out with commentary and refuting what she sees.
Becerra creates a believable younger Juana. The longer you experience the two actors portraying each other in different eras of their life, the more they merge. Both are fine singers and effortlessly negotiate the considerable difficulties of Crozier’s vocal writing. But the overall takeaway is not their vocal prowess, as in other opera productions. Here, the vivid creation of Sor Juana that appears before us takes both of them to achieve, but it is more impressive than any high note in a Puccini aria.
The other characters are equally strong. Special mention must be made of tenor Ian McEuen’s portrayal of the priest, mentally crippled by sexual agonies, who causes Sor Juana so much trouble. Although we learn earlier that it is his proclivity, the scene where he brutally whips his own back, in a futile attempt to expel impure thoughts, is sickenly realistic.
As the Countess, Juana’s guardian angel, Audrey Babcock is heartbreakingly eloquent in her impotence to affect adverse events. However, she is triumphant in the end. Her high position allows her to leap frog the heavy hand of the church and bring Sor Juana, through her published writings, to the world.
As the Archbishop who represents “The Church” as a whole, Jesse Enderle, is less effective than the others. However, this is probably because he is the only one not representing a real person. His petty officialness rings false and true at the same time.
Corrie Donovan and Clara Nieman do a fine job of portraying two nuns that care for Sor Juana in her final hours. As such, they are not included in the vision we all share, but appear when we are back in the dreary reality of death and the faulty perception that Sor Juana dies forgotten and disgraced.
The small chamber orchestra is marvelous under the expert direction of conductor Timothy Myers. It is no wonder—some of the best instrumentalists in town are in the ensemble. They are seated behind the row of arches that creates the feeling of the nun’s cloister. A scrim in the arches would have been an improvement. They would have been less visually obvious and the sound would have been less “present.” It would have been easier for Myers to balance with the singers, no mean task in that he no contact with them. He is in the back and they are in the front. It is remarkable what he is able to achieve under such circumstances.
Set designer Erhard Rom creates a believable cloister library out of a few pieces, dominated by the afore-mentioned row of arches. Sean Jeffries uses light to change the venues in the single set production. The nuns themselves move the few pieces of furniture around after the manner of the stagehands in a Japanese Noh drama—seen but politely ignored.
The costumes by Austin Scarlett are terrific period creations. His celebrity from Project Runway may overshadow his extensive experience in the theater, but his creations for this show speak louder than his popular image. The costumes for the Countess are especially noteworthy because, while they are historically accurate, they are also over-the-top. Her hairdos, including the twin horns of hair coming out of the sides of her head reminiscent of a character in the Dilbert comic strip, only adds to the to the feeling of exaggerated reality that permeates his designs, including what he wore for his bow.
This brings us to the opera itself. Krask’s libretto is a marvel of organization and literary excellence. Libretti have sunk many an operatic ship, but here the opera sails on Krask’s well-crafted framework. Musically, Crozier uses a wide harmonic palette to create a score that is more evocative than soaring with operatic melody. Krask’s words are often chanted and sung in the manner in which they would be spoken. He writes in a tonal manner but his musical language is hardly a rework of romanticism. His use of harmony, which draws on a myriad of traditions, is always fresh and effective. As surely as the set and costumes, Crozier’s score paints the scenes for us in a practically visual manner. However, when operatic splendor is required, as in the two trios near the end, he creates all the Straussian glory you could want.
In the end, With Blood, With Ink is an engrossing theater piece that uses opera as a language in the way that Oscar Wilde used French for his play Salome. This musical medium for the message about the life of Sor Juana is an inspired choice that is brilliantly executed by composer and librettist. But it is the guiding hand of Vaughn that raises the production to the level of extraordinary.
» Read our interview with director Dona D. Vaughn here
» You can read our story about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and this opera, as well as a play about her being performed by Teatro Dallas, here.
» Photos copyright Robert Hart for TheaterJones. To see them all, click the Slideshow icon in the floating menu at the bottom left of your screen
Other reviews from the 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival:
Here's a video preview of With Blood, With Ink:
Other reviews from the 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival:
- Bizet's The Pearl Fishers
- The popera outfit Forte, featuring Sean Panikkar
- Mozart's Così fan tutte
- Kevin Puts' Silent Night
Remaining Schedule of 2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival Performances
Tuesday, May 6 7:30 p.m. McDavid Studio With Blood, With Ink
Wednesday, May 7 7:30 p.m McDavid Studio With Blood, With Ink
Thursday, May 8 6:00 p.m McDavid Studio Frontiers Showcase #1
Friday, May 9 3:00 p.m. McDavid Studio Frontiers Showcase #2
Friday, May 9 7:30 p.m. McDavid Studio With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10 2:00 p.m. McDavid Studio With Blood, With Ink
Saturday, May 10 7:30 p.m. Bass Hall Silent Night
Sunday, May 11 2:00 p.m. Bass Hall Così fan tutte