Fort Worth Opera opened its 2014 festival this weekend with two starkly contrasted works, each effective in its own way.One was a work in the mainline operatic tradition: Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, whose first performance was Saturday night in Bass Hall. The other was Daniel Crozier’s With Blood, With Ink, a powerful drama with reinforcing music. It debuted Sunday afternoon across the street in McDavid Studio.Probably most music lovers think of Bizet as a one-work composer. His Carmen, whose earthy beauty and real-world plot put everything else he wrote into the shade, is one of the most popular of all operas.He did write some other worthy pieces, including a wonderful symphony composed in his teen years and some lighter instrumental works. But probably the only other composition by Bizet that comes close to being a rival of Carmen is The Pearl Fishers.Compared to Carmen’s gritty this-world atmosphere, the exotic atmosphere of The Pearl Fishers, with its faraway locale and strange customs, seems distinctly other-worldly.The opera is set in Ceylon (nowadays called Sri Lanka). Its plot seems a little silly but is not overly complicated: Two friends (Nadir and Zurga) have a falling-out over a girl (Leïla). They give her up and reconcile. When Leïla shows up as a sort of priestess hidden by veils — she has been chosen to offer divine protection to villagers as they dive for pearls — the two friends recognize her and have another falling-out. She loves Nadir and breaks her solemn vow to have nothing to do with a man. Discovered, she and Nadir are then sentenced to death. In a final reconciliation (spoiler alert!), Zurga gives up his life to save Nadir and Leïla.Musically, The Pearl Fishers doesn’t have the punch of Carmen, but it does have two-and-a-half hours of pleasant music. One aria, Nadir’s Je crois entendre encore, is outstanding by any standard.That aria, sung by Sean Panikkar, was the high point of Saturday night’s quite decent performance in Bass Hall. Panikkar’s triumph was not unexpected. In his previous appearance with the company, as Rodolfo in La Bohème, he displayed a highly appealing lyric tenor voice and a fine sense of musical theater. His appearance in this opera is fitting: He’s of Sri Lankan descent.The other soloists in this small cast were not put in the shade. Hailey Clark’s light, agile, bird-twittering soprano scored points in the part of Leïla, and Lee Poulis’ light baritone made Zurga a pleasant-sounding foil to Panikkar’s role. Bass-baritone Justin Hopkins gave a decent account of the high priest Nourabad, the shortest role of the quartet of soloists.The Fort Worth Symphony under Joe Illick’s leadership gave strong support (the woodwinds were in especially fine shape), and the chorus, despite some thin sounds from the tenors early on, contributed effective musical and theatrical atmosphere.Roberto Oswald’s scenery — religious statues, temple pavilion, a beach — created a convincing Buddhist-island sense, and Scott Marr’s costumes seemed fitting, though Zurga’s low-slung pants created a sense of apprehension that they might drop to his ankles at any moment. Subsequent performances take place April 27 and May 2. With Blood, With Ink, whose librettist is Peter M. Krask, was receiving its world professional premiere. It’s based on the career of a real person, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th century Mexican nun who was severely disciplined by church authorities for her proto-feminist ways.The opera has two of her: a young Juana and an older, dying one. The plot tells her story in flash-back. With Blood, With Ink has the power of a fine piece of legitimate theater; I found it gripping throughout its hour-and-40-minute length (there is no intermission). It requires more than competent singers; the cast’s dramatic instincts have to be strong.The cast in McDavid Studio fit the bill. This was especially true of Vanessa Becerra and Sandra Lopez (the two Juanas), and Ian McEuen (the priest who becomes Juana’s chief antagonist). Vocal and acting skill combined to strong effect.Supporting ably were Corrie Donovan and Clara Nieman as two sister nuns, Audrey Babcock as a friend of Juana’s, Meaghan Deiter as another nun, and Jesse Enderle as an archbishop.Musically, the small orchestra under Timothy Myers’ direction creates atmosphere rather than provide backing for set vocal pieces. Crozier’s gift for this is substantial, though musical ideas tend to be brief bits, not extended declamations. An incongruous dance and some of the choral work were impressive exceptions.McDavid Studio’s playing and audience spaces are small, but scenic designer Erhard Rom’s convent library, lit by Sean Jeffries, worked very well as a backdrop for the action of the play. Period costumes by celebrity fashion designer Austin Scarlett added a touch of authenticity.There is no projection of the English text. Though it was easy to grasp the gist of each scene, not every word could be understood. With Blood, With Ink gets nine more performances, through May 10.
2014 Fort Worth Opera Festival
The Pearl Fishers
By Georges Bizet
Synopsis: Set along the sea of ancient tropical Ceylon, this 1863 opera has vows of eternal friendship put to the test. Two fishermen are plunged into a forbidden love triangle when a mysterious woman from their past returns and ignites a jealous rivalry. Lives hang in the balance, as the jealousy of a slighted lover could prevail or the bonds of fraternal loyalty could prevent a fateful end.
Primary cast: Hailey Clark (Leïla), Sean Panikkar (Nadir), Lee Poulis (Zurga), Justin Hopkins (Nourabad)
Director: John de los Santos
Run time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (presented in three acts with two intermissions)
Language: French (with English and Spanish supertitles)
Performances: April 19 and 27; May 2
Bass Hall, Fort Worth
With Blood, With Ink
By Daniel Crozier and Peter M. Krask
Synopsis: With Blood, With Ink chronicles the life of an impoverished, illegitimate child in 17th-century colonial Mexico who rose to become the first great literary figure in America. The opera examines the irony of Sor (Sister) Juana’s genius, which was the key to her success as well as the cause of her destruction. Through a series of visions throughout the opera, she recounts her tireless campaign for women’s rights until she is forced to sign an oath in blood renouncing her life’s work — an oath that ultimately brought her to her deathbed.
Primary cast: Sandra Lopez (Dying Sor Juana), Vanessa Becerra (Young Juana), Ian McEuen (Padre), Audrey Babcock (Maria Louisa), John Cabrali (Archbishop)
Director: Dona D. Vaughn
Run time: About 2 hours (presented in two acts without intermission)
Performances: April 20, 25, 26, 27 and 29, and May 3, 4, 6, 9 and 10
McDavid Studio, 301 E. Fifth St., Fort Worth
Tickets: $87; tickets are nearly sold out. Call for availability..
Cosi fan tutte
By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Synopsis: Cosi fan tutte means “Thus do all (women).” Set for this production in the minimalistic art deco period of the 1920s, this Mozart classic is a persistent game of reason versus passion. Lighthearted deceptions and tests of true love between two military officers and their fiancées lead to comedic mayhem as the plot unfolds. When the ruses are revealed, will the lovers remain faithful or be fickle?
Primary cast: Jan Cornelius (Fiordiligi), Kathryn Leemhuis (Dorabella), Scott Quinn (Ferrando), Paul Scholten (Guglielmo), Kerriann Otaño (Despina), Tyler Simpson (Don Alfonso)
Director: David Gately
Run time: About 2 hours, 50 minutes (presented in two acts with one intermission)
Language: Italian (with English and Spanish supertitles)
Performances: April 26, May 3 and 11
Bass Hall, Fort Worth
By Kevin Puts
Synopsis: Making its regional premiere, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera tells the true story of a poignant moment of peace during World War I, when a historic impromptu cease-fire took place between Scottish, German and French soldiers on the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914. While the soldiers share their provisions and stories of their lives on one night, the war continues when the sun rises on Christmas Day. Based on the 2005 film Joyeux Noël.
Primary cast: Ava Pine (Anna Sorenson), Chad Johnson (Nikolaus Sprink), Morgan Smith (Lt. Audebert), Craig Irvin (Lt. Horstmayer), Dan Kempson (Lt. Gordon), Kevin Newell (Jonathan Dale), Steven Eddy (Ponchel)
Director: Octavio Cardenas
Run time: About 2 hours, 30 minutes (presented in two acts with one intermission)
Language: English, French, German and Latin (with English and Spanish supertitles)
Performances: May 4 and 10
Bass Hall, Fort Worth
Student and military discounts available.
Source for synopses: Fort Worth Opera