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CROZIER: With Blood, With Ink

spacer Lopez, Becerra, Babcock, Donovan, Nieman, Deiter; McEuen, Enderle; Fort Worth Opera Festival Chorus, Fort Worth Symphony Chamber Orchestra, Myers. English text. Albany Records, TROY 1513/14 (2)


Last spring, the ever-adventurous Fort Worth Opera Festival presented the professional stage premiere of composer Daniel Crozier and librettist Peter M. Krask’s With Blood, With Ink, and Albany Records has done a quick turnaround with this recording. Crozier and Krask wrote this piece when both were doctoral candidates at Peabody twenty-some years ago, but it shows a great deal of maturity and depth. The opera tells the story of Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–95), a self-taught scholar, poet and nun who lived in Mexico in the late seventeenth century — a time when reading and writing were forbidden activities for young girls. On the basis of her surviving poems, Sor Juana stands as a seminal figure of the Mexican literary tradition. (Krask’s notes go so far as to call her “the first great literary figure in the Americas.”) The opera is told mostly in flashback, with Juana on her deathbed, painfully reliving her memories of censure and suppression in the convent where she spent most of her life. In Krask’s libretto, Dying Juana and Young Juana are two separate characters, here played by Sandra Lopez and Vanessa Becerra, respectively.

Juana’s nemesis is Padre Antonio, who eagerly welcomes the precocious girl to the convent, offering false assurances that she’ll be able to continue her studies and her writing, whereas his true intention, as he puts it, is, “You will be my victory. My genius. My saint.” There’s more than a hint of sexual sublimation to Padre Antonio’s effusions over the girl, and he even states explicitly, “Each day I struggle to tame my humanity. Three times a week I whip myself.” Dying Juana comments bitterly on the proceedings, making such observations as “The man of God is a man of lies” and “I look with dread upon you, elusive shadow of myself.” Spilling over with bitterness and self-pity, the role of Dying Juana is somewhat thankless, although Lopez sings the challenging part with great authority and gives the opera an adrenaline shot when she sits bolt upright in bed toward the beginning and feverishly recalls her childhood. Young Juana, for her part, bursts with ideas and energy, and Becerra’s sunny, youthfully appealing soprano creates an irresistible characterization. During a centerpiece scene, after being accused by her fellow nuns of not believing in God, Juana — in a beautifully flowering aria accompanied by romantic, sustained strings — elucidates her beliefs, which include the heretical notion that part of God can lie in a woman’s soul. Becerra is self-possessed and sweetly charismatic in this passage, as Juana’s dangerous ideas (and perhaps Juana herself) drive Ian McEuen’s Padre Antonio into a frenzy. McEuen, practically trembling with fury, yet filling out long, sustained phrases, is especially good in this violent, driving sequence. Becerra also has a gripping scene with Jesse Enderle, as Archbishop Seijas, who comes to see Juana for himself after word of her accomplishments reaches his ear. Enderle’s sonorous bass-baritone pulses with power and danger during their confrontation. Ultimately, Juana is forced to sign an oath with her blood, renouncing her studying and writing — hence the opera’s title. 

Mezzo Audrey Babcock brings admirable clarity and fortitude to the role of Countess Maria Luisa, a patron and mother figure to Juana, and the person responsible for getting her writing published. Babcock and Becerra sing what amounts to a love duet in Act II, another indisputably attractive number that turns into a trio with Lopez, although its beauty is slightly marred by the layering on of heavy voices. Composer Crozier gets a wide rainbow of timbres out of the impressive thirteen-piece chamber ensemble, conducted with verve and confidence by Timothy Myers. The opera can be a little ponderous and self-serious, but it’s unquestionably worthy, with compelling, multidimensional characters. The cast and creators have obviously put enormous loving care into bringing Sor Juana’s largely unknown story to musical life. spacer 



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