OPERA NEWS - With Blood, With Ink (4/26/14) & Les Pêcheurs de Perles (4/27/14)
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In Review > North America

With Blood, With Ink (4/26/14) & Les Pêcheurs de Perles (4/27/14)

Fort Worth Opera

In Review Blood Ink hdl 714
Sisterly Conversation: Becerra, Meaghan Dieter (Mother Superior Sor Andrea), Lopez and McEuen in With Blood, With Ink at Fort Worth Opera
© Ellen Appel 2014
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Dreaming ease: Panikkar as Nadir
© Karen Almond 2014

The spring repertory season at Fort Worth Opera — an impressive four-opera mix of the tried-and-true and the avant-garde — began on Easter weekend with Bizet's Pêcheurs de Perles and the professional world premiere of With Blood, With Ink,by composer Daniel Crozier and librettist Peter M. Krask. (The balance of the season, Così Fan Tutte and the local premiere of Kevin Puts's Silent Night, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2012, is reviewed online.)

With Blood, With Ink, performed in the chamber space of Fort Worth's McDavid Theater, adjacent to the Bass Performance Hall, was created by Crozier and Krask when they were students at the Peabody Conservatory twenty years ago. This one-act, 100-minute chamber work (seen Apr. 26) celebrates the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a seventeenth-century Mexican nun and author whose published work troubled the religious authorities. She was forced to renounce her activities, repent her sins and take a vow of silence. Having spent a quarter century in her convent, Sor Juana lived for two more years after she signed — in her own blood — her repentance.

The opera is strongly organized, dramatically powerful, inventively framed. The score is eclectic, often lyrical, occasionally atonal and for the most part convincing, except in the rare moments when the musical idiom seems too bland for the human and spiritual drama attached to it. The small chamber ensemble, wonderfully led by Timothy Myers, sounded good, even in the acoustically dry space of a black-box theater. The main dramatic action is framed by Gregorian chant, sung by a chorus of nuns who move around the perimeter of the audience and the stage. Erhard Rom designed the single, sturdy set; Austin Scarlett (of Project Runway fame) did the costumes, Sean Jeffries the lighting. Dona D. Vaughn directed the production and allowed the scenes to flow seamlessly into one another.

The opera begins and ends on the nun's deathbed in April 1695, with Sor Juana recalling her life. The flashback scenes recount that life and Juana's work through a series of solos, duets and trios. At one point, the young Juana sings "God is a circle whose center lies in all things," arguing with her incensed, sadomasochistic supervisor, Padre Antonio, who thinks of the young nun as his life's work. The older Juana, meanwhile, sings "God is a noose pulled around our necks." At another point, young Juana performs what amounts to a love-duet with her aristocratic patron María Luisa, the Countess de Parades (the woman who has arranged for the publication of her work): "You are the soul of this body/You are the body of this soul."

The singing was uniformly impressive. Sandra Lopez, the older Sor Juana, has a soprano voice with a mezzo's richness, which worked well against the brighter, lighter coloratura voice of Vanessa Becerra, as the young nun. At the start, Becerra looked and acted as though she'd wandered off the set of The Sound of Music, but her performance gained considerable power as her character matured and deepened. Among the other outstanding singers were Audrey Babcock, as the imperious Countess, and Ian McEuen, one of the Fort Worth Opera Studio artists, as the self-lacerating Padre Antonio. Jesse Enderle made an impressive Archbishop.

With Blood, With Ink is gripping, dramatic and philosophically relevant; Bizet's Pêcheurs de Perles (seen Apr. 27) is tuneful, lush Romantic Orientalism from 1863. Its glorious nonsense came to life at the hands of conductor Joe Illick, in a production directed and choreographed by John de los Santos, with costumes by Scott Marr and lighting design by Chad R. Jung. The major pleasures of the performance came from the young singers. Sean Panikkar has a thrilling voice — a tenor poised midway between lyric and heroic. As Nadir, Panikkar delivered his half of "Au fond du temple saint" with sweetly dreaming ease and high notes that filled Bass Hall. In "Je crois entendre encore," taken at a slow tempo, his beautiful last words, "charmant souvenir," floated high and dissolved slowly. 

Panikkar's Nadir was well matched by the Zurga of strapping young American baritone Lee Poulis, whose voice blended seamlessly with Panikkar's in the great Act I duet. Poulis has both strength and the upper register that Bizet requires of this character. Virile and heroic, in both appearance and vocalism, Poulis played the role of friend and rival with consummate authority; his self-sacrifice at the opera's end was genuinely moving.

Soprano Hailey Clark, as Leïla, the mysterious priestess loved by both men, had audible difficulty with the ornamentation, especially at the end of Act I, when her fioritura sounded a bit flat. In Act III, however, begging Zurga for Nadir's life, she sang heroically and thrillingly. The fourth soloist, Justin Hopkins, performed the secondary role of Nourabad with sober authority. Of the several options for the ending, the Fort Worth production opted for the one in which Zurga saves the lovers but is himself stabbed by the guards and dies. spacer


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