Arts & Culture

April 20, 2014

Fort Worth Opera Festival opens with starkly contrasting ‘Pearl Fishers,’ ‘With Blood, With Ink’

While Bizet’s classic opera features exotic scenery in a faraway setting, Crozier’s contemporary work offers an intimate and thoroughly powerful experience.

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.

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