With Blood, With Ink
The action of the opera centers around the dying moments of the 17th-century Mexican poetess and nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. It opens with Sor Juana on her death-bed, sick with the plague. She is attended by two other nuns, Sor Isabel and Sor Rosa, while an offstage chorus chants the Requiem. During the course of the action, the dying woman (hereafter referred to as Dying Juana) recalls the past. In her memory, she sees her younger self (referred to as Young Juana) at various moments in her earlier years, together with some of the people who played an important part in her life: her patroness, Maria Luisa, the Countess of Paredes and wife of the Spanish Viceroy; her father confessor, Padre Antonio Nuñez de Miranda; Archbishop Seijas; and Sor Andrea, the prioress of her convent. Dying Juana watches these people from her past, and increasingly moves among them, but she has no communication with any of them, except towards the very end of her life, when the two time periods coalesce and she comforts her other self. The action is divided into nine scenes, each introduced by a different section of the Gregorian Requiem.
1. Et Lux Perpetua
Sor Isabel and Sor Rosa watch by the bedside of the dying woman, discussing the progress of the plague and Sor Juana’s heroic work with the other victims. Sor Isabel suggests that she may want to die in order to “escape her silence.” At the words “et lux perpetua,” Dying Juana leaps up, and recalls her childhood in a feverish ARIA: “I was born when sun rays stared straight at me, not slanted as they are elsewhere.” She tells of her upbringing by her unmarried mother, her thirst for knowledge, and of being sent to the viceregal court as a young prodigy. “And now,” she says, “it has all become darkness.” She sinks back, as the nuns continue the Requiem.
2. Inter Oves Locum Praesta
Through the chanting of the nuns, Dying Juana hears the offstage voice of Maria Luisa calling her name. But the time is long ago, and it is the Young Juana, the “elusive shadow of my former self,” that answers, flushed with victory after a trial of wits with the learned men of the court. She regards Maria Luisa as a mother, who has protected her ever since she came to the court. But now it is time for her to leave. Maria Luisa asks what she will do: will she consider marriage? But no; she has no dowry, and besides she has her work. Young Juana, joined by Dying Juana, tells her vision of the power of poetry in women’s hands in a brief ARIETTA: “Last night, my first dream: stars fell to the earth onto a dark land.” When Maria Luisa warns her that the powers of the world may be too strong, she accepts her suggestion to enter a convent. While Padre Antonio is being sent for and Maria Luisa leaves, Dying Juana repeats a part of her opening aria.
|Scene 2: Elizabeth Knauer, Kathleen Stapleton, and Monica Reinagel|
|All photos of the premiere production by Charles Nieberding|
3. Oro Supplex
Over the chanting of the nuns, Young Juana and Dying Juana sing (to the “sunrays” theme) the opening words of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. That light was the light of men. The light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”
The scene moves to Young Juana’s consecration as a nun, attended also by Sor Isabel and Sor Rosa. Sor Andrea, as Prioress, reads her her vows; Young Juana responds, and chooses the name Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. The three nuns sing a brief Sanctus, after which Dying Juana closes the curtain, as it were, saying that she wishes no more pain from her troubled memories.
4. Lux Aeterna
The action of this scene is triggered by gossip between Sor Isabel and Sor Rosa. Sor Rosa, somewhat resentful, says that she has heard tell that Sor Juana believes in no God at all, and yet she always receives privileged treatment. Sor Isabel is shocked, pointing to Sor Juana’s poetry and special qualities. When Young Juana enters accompanied by Padre Antonio, Sor Isabel repeats what Sor Rosa had been saying. Padre Antonio uses the opportunity to reprove Young Juana for her excessive attention to her books. Young Juana begins to explain, but Padre Antonio cuts her off, reminding her that it was Eve who chose to eat the apple. “Perhaps she was hungry,” Young Juana replies.
An extended TRIO then emerges, in which each of the three main characters come in separately wit a short aria before they join their voices together. Young Juana expands her earlier explanation: “God is a circle, in whose center lies in all things…. He is the wheel on which we circle to our death… for God is the wheel of infinity.” In a fierce aside (“I thought my bones would fly apart”), Padre Antonio sings of his rage at Young Juana’s words, and her “sick, evil pride that I must fight.” DJ’s aria is a melancholy reversal of Young Juana’s: “God is a box, with a lid that’s nailed shut; God is a noose pulled tight round our necks.” The three voices combine in a trip with increasing vehemence, until Sor Andrea breaks in, insisting that she will not have such disruptions in her convent. She punishes Sor Isabel and Sor Rosa, but holds off from a confrontation with Sor Juana.
Left alone, Dying Juana joins with Young Juana in a SHARED ARIA: “I came into this world as light, wearing sunbeams.” Realizing the position she is in, Young Juana cries out: “Great God, your blessing is more a curse. It is a damnation, blown up lie gunpowder or fire. Like deprivation, it causes my desire….”
5. Te Decet Hymnus
While the chorus is heard chanting to bright music offstage, Young Juana is seen writing her poem: “See how love stands shivering in the icy blast.” Sor Rosa enters with a message, but Young Juana, angry at the interruption, treats her curtly. It eventually emerges that Sor Rosa is announcing the arrival of Maria Luisa, who enters at that moment making polite small-talk with Sor Andrea, eventually getting rid of her with some difficulty.
|Scene 5: Elizabeth Knauer and Kathleen Stapleton|
Padre Antonio has been eavesdropping on the end of this encounter. Disguising his voice as a nun, he calls Sor Juana’s name, once more triggering her impatience at being interrupted. He then breaks in and denounces her violently: “You have much to confess, my daughter. Your harvest of pride is lice, corruption, and stench!” He denounces her writing and her friendship with Maria Luisa, which he calls “a sin against God… proof that women are defiled.” Soon another reason for his anger emerges: he feels he has been betrayed by her. “You were to be my great success; you were my victory; I would make you a saint!” At this, Young Juana begins to regain control, reminding him of his broken promises to her, and saying that if she is a whore, it was he who offered to pay. She bids him leave her cell, never to return. But it is a hollow victory; the scene ends on DJ’s sad words: “My soul is alone with the anguish of death.”
6. Liber Scriptus
This short intensely lyrical scene combines three elements. One is the chant of the chorus: “Liber scriptus proferetur, in quo totum continentur, unde mundus judicetur.” The second is the letter written by Young Juana to form to preface to her book, in which she asks the question: “Has not a woman a soul? Is there no place for God in it?” The third is Dying Juana’s dream, which begins similarly to the dream in Scene 2, but is developed quite differently:
Last night, my first dream…
Scene 6: Monica Reinagel as Dying Juana
I looked out from my high window
And saw endless red ears of wheat.
There were no walls or boundaries,
Only fields empty of defeat.
I saw a man formed out of corn:
His body was dripping with blood;
And in his hands, so perfectly formed,
Were hyacinths and the sun.
And on his back and on his hair
He wore a cloth woven in waves of air.
I looked out and I could see
This infinite wheaten tapestry.
I wanted to go, to live in this place;
To leap from my window, and fall into grace.
7. Dies Irae
There now follows a savage ORCHESTRAL INTERLUDE, a furious fugato which builds to a shattering climax involving the entire orchestra before dying to the agitated muttering of the unseen nuns: “Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla.”
The scene proper begins with Sor Isabel and Sor Rosa. Sor Rosa is excited that Archbishop Seijas is about to visit the convent of San Jeronimo; she has heard of his miraculous hands. Sor Isabel realizes that he has come for Sor Juana, and asks bitterly whether he can feed the starving people all around them. Archbishop Seijas enters, escorted by Sor Andrea and Young Juana, whom he greets ironically as the “Phoenix of America.” When Sor Andrea interrupts to disavow any words published by Sor Juana, Young Juana calls her a silly woman. Archbishop Seijas agrees, and sends the Prioress out of the room with the other two nuns.
In response to the question posed in the preface to her book, Archbishop Seijas begins to catechize Young Juana, politely but firmly refusing to be put off. “To whom are you devoted,” he asks, “yourself or God?” Young Juana replies in a short ARIA: “Our Father has blessed me with His favor…. I have this nature… with it I was born; with it I shall die.” “Then you shall die alone,” the Archbishop replies; “your words have said too much.” Next week is the time for her to renew her vows after twenty-five years in the order. He will not allow it, unless she renounce —
|Scene 7: Elizabeth Knauer with Steven Rainbolt as the Archbishop|
8. Confutatis Maledictis
After the brief chant of the offstage chorus, Padre Antonio enters, recalling in his words, music, and jubilant mood his first entrance in the opera. “In heaven, the angels rejoice,” he says; “your letter proves that God hears my voice.” Dying Juana confronts him with the repeated assertion: “I do not know this man!” Young Juana says nothing. Sor Andrea says that she is ready to ask Sor Juana her vows, but she is forestalled first by the arrival of Archbishop Seijas as witness, and then by Padre Antonio’s request that he ask the vows himself.
The reconsecration is a close reprise of the consecration ceremony in Scene 3, though with much greater independence between the parts of Young Juana and Dying Juana, and more extensive orchestral commentary. At the end, there is no Sanctus, but only the brief phrase, “Welcome daughter.” There follows a short TRIO in which Padre Antonio tells her to sign her confession, and the two Juanas comply: “I give up my study and renounce my pen. I swear with my blood I will not write again.” As Young Juana asks for the knife so she may sign her oath in her own blood, Dying Juana comments: “My glory, written with letters of devastation. I die at the hand of the thing I love most!” The others take her profession and leave, Archbishop Seijas saying that he will send somebody to collect her books.
Left alone, Young Juana speaks her last lines as a poet: “Do not marvel at the silence you find in me. I shall shine brightly in the fire of silence.” The orchestra stops. All that can be heard is the sound of tearing pages. Then Dying Juana approaches Young Juana directly for the first time, and binds up her bleeding hand. “Enough of suffering, my love, enough. I ask death to come; I have seen enough. What use is it to know so much, if we are to live such a short while?” There is a long slow coda as the scene fades out.
9. Requiem Aeternam
We are back to the opening scene of the opera. Once more, Sor Isabel and Sor Rosa watch by the bedside of the Dying Juana, while the chorus chant the Requiem in the background. Dying Juana cries out briefly with her last words — “Corpse, ashes, shadow, void…. Never fear to be destroyed” — and dies. In a monotone, Sor Isabel records the fact and date of her death.
There is a slow processional, during which the other characters come onto the stage with lighted candles. They enshroud the body, take a crucifix from the bookshelf, lay it on her breast, and fold her hands over it. Then they come to the front of the stage, chanting the words of Sor Juana’s last testament. As they do so, Young Juana reappears, now free from earthly ties. She uncovers the face of the dead woman and kisses her tenderly. Then, removing the crucifix, she lovingly places Sor Juana’s book of poetry under her folded hands before replacing the cross. The music has reached its climax. One by one, the other characters blow out their candles. Finally, Young Juana steps forward, singing her name in triumph. She blows out the last remaining candle, and the opera ends.
Production notes by Roger Brunyate and Peter Krask
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