Young soprano a bright spot in Third Eye’s uneven “With Blood, With Ink”

Sun Oct 22, 2017 at 1:22 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Gisella Milla Adams and Noah Gartner in Daniel Crozier's "With Blood, With Ink" at Third Eye Theatre Ensemble.
Gisella Milla Adams and Noah Gartner in Daniel Crozier’s “With Blood, With Ink” at Third Eye Theatre Ensemble.

If October 31 is on the horizon then it must be time for another production by Third Eye Theatre Ensemble.

The storefront opera troupe debuted Halloween night 2014 with a powerful performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium. Since then it has been the theme of conflicted spirituality more than ghostly spirits that has haunted Third Eye.

Religious communities and their discontents continues to be the company’s favored leitmotiv in its stagings of contemporary operas like Mohammed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song and Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters. Such was the case again with Daniel Crozier’s With Blood, With Ink, which Third Eye Theatre is presenting with alternating casts at the Prop Theater on the northwest side.

The opera tells the story of Juana Inés de la Cruz. A truly remarkable woman, the 17th-century Mexican nun and scholar was entirely self educated and even in her day, widely celebrated as a theologian, philosopher, poet, playwright and composer. Perhaps most importantly today, Sor Juana was an early feminist icon, who stood up for the rights of women to be educated and repeatedly battled with church authorities. Known as “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of America,” she was persecuted by the patriarchal Church authority for her progressive and unorthodox writings, and ultimately forced to sell her vast library and cease all scholarly activity, which the opera suggests led to her death at 43.

There is no doubt that the extraordinary life of “Sor Juana” would make a compelling opera. Unfortunately, based on Saturday night’s performance, With Blood, With Ink isn’t it. 

The fault doesn’t lie with the composer. Crozier’s music is attractive enough, cast in a tonal lyrical style that flows fluently and wraps naturally around the words of Peter M. Krask’s talky libretto. Yet while the score is engaging and theatrically effective, there is no music that really makes a strong impact or stays in the memory. Crozier’s high, chant-like pastiches for the nuns that opens several scenes, set to the Latin text from the mass for the dead, is the most striking music in the entire opera.

The chief problem of With Blood, With Ink, which is being presented in its Midwest premiere, is the work’s structure. The opera opens with the dying Juana (Isabel Velazquez) who recounts her life, which is then told in flashback. That would be fine but the expiring sister is onstage for the entire opera, commenting, grimacing, singing and reacting to the stage action as one-nun Greek chorus from the sidelines. As you might expect, that works for about five minutes and then quickly becomes irritating as hell. Velazquez’s dry tone and unremitting volume made one wish the nun would pass away more expeditiously.

In fact, much of the problem with Saturday night’s performance–running 90 minutes without intermission–was the failure to rein in big voices in such a tiny space. In the past Third Eye has found a way to make the intimate Prop Theater work to its advantage. But for the first time the microbial black box seemed as much of a hindrance to the performance as a help. With so much loud singing at such close range, the experience was often overwhelming and occasionally painful, doing no favors to Crozier’s opera or to the audience.

The evening’s main bright spot—along with Jason Carlson’s assured musical direction and first-rate piano accompaniment–was the performance of Gisella Milla Adams in the lead role of the Young Juana.

The young soprano sang well and with strength when required, but was most impressive dramatically, creating a fully rounded character out of the lightly sketched role. Adams charted Juana’s evolution from wide-eyed innocent to naive novice, frustrated feminist and finally a martyred figure of great dignity and stoic strength.

The rest of the cast were game and capable actors with acceptable voices. As the hypocritical Padre Antonio tenor Stan DeCwikiel Jr. was an imposing villain physically and vocally, though his stentorian singing was relentless in such close quarters. Noah Gartner’s firm baritone as Archbishop Seijas provided a finely etched characterization as well as the best singing of the evening.

Sarah Draffen was credible as Maria Luisa, Juana’s aristocratic patroness, and Rena Ahmed, Katarina Bakas and Alexandra Kassouf sang well and nicely rounded out the supporting group of nuns.

Rose Freeman provided her usual resourceful and efficient stage direction in the claustrophobic space, though she may want to rethink the final tableau with the Dying Juana placing what looked like a huge holiday lighting fixture on Young Juana’s head.

With Blood, With Ink runs with two alternating casts through November 5 at the Prop Theater, 3502 North Elston.

Posted in Performances

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