Composed by Daniel Crozier with a libretto by Peter Krask, With Blood, With Ink poses a centuries-old question: Can art palliate human tragedy?
Many people find comfort in socially conscious art. Works like the Oklahoma City National Memorial, Krysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and others create space, physical or mental, that allows people to reflect, meditate, and ultimately cope with tragedy. With Blood, With Ink, one of four operas in Fort Worth Opera’s annual festival, is similarly consoling. And spellbinding.
The plot follows the tragic life of the self-taught poet and scholar Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a nun in the convent of San Jerónimo, near Mexico City. In another era, her talents might have been praised, but she was born into 17th-century Mexico with all of its pre-enlightenment misconceptions about women’s role in society.
The opera opens with an elderly Sor Juana (the brilliant soprano Sandra Lopez) lying on her deathbed in agony. As she mumbles deliriously, friends Sor Isabel (soprano Corrie Donovan) and Sor Rosa (soprano Clara Neiman) console her. Sor Rosa thinks the dying woman longs to be released to her heavenly father, but Sor Isabel offers a sharp rebuttal — no, she wants to escape her imposed silence.
The audience is then transported into the soon-to-be martyred Sor Juana’s mind just as she gasps for one final breath. What fills her thoughts, and our consciousness, is one final look back at her life via her younger self. The scene begins blissfully enough. Young Juana (soprano Vanessa Becerra) boasts of her intellectual prowess to her guardian María Luisa (soprano Audrey Babcock), but the mood quickly changes as Maria tells Juana that she must marry. Refusing to subjugate herself to a man and lose her dreams, Juana chooses to join a convent instead.
She begins writing furiously, which soon lands her an audience with San Jerónimo’s director and confessor, Padre Antonio Nuñez de Miranda. Gazing lustfully at his charges, flagellating himself dramatically, extolling his own piety, and manipulating everyone, Padre Antonio, played masterfully by tenor Ian McEuen, conspires with Archbishop Aguiar Y Seijas (baritone Jesse Enderle) to force Sor Juana to sign a contract, written in her own blood, denouncing her work.
Staged in McDavid Studio, the production was intimate and precise. The scenes in the convent were especially harrowing, everything bathed in blood-red lighting and shadowed by a massive crucifix.
Unlike in most contemporary operas, the music here is sort of an additional character, sometimes leading the action while at other times commenting on it. Though Crozier refers to the baroque period in which the opera is set, especially in Padre Antonio’s highly ornamental lines, the music lies firmly in the modern era, relying more on undulating waves of sound than on Puccini-esque melody. This production also featured chanting from a chorus of nuns under the direction of FWO pianist and chorus master Stephen Carey. The chamber orchestra, under the baton of Timothy Myers, performed in a room downstage but managed to seamlessly blend into the scenery.
Fort Worth Opera’s With Ink, With Blood
2pm Sat, 7:30pm Sun, and thru May 10 at McDavid Studio, 301 E 5th St, FW. $87. 817-731-0726.