By Richard Dyer- Globe Staff Sunday, August 3, 2003

The posthumous passion of Juana la Loca

LENOX –“What is passion?” “What is it all about?” “What will it make people do?” These are the questions the Dutch composer Rob Zuidam asked himself as he wrote his opera “Rage d'Amours”, which will have its world premiere performances on a double bill with Osvaldo Golijov's opera “Ainadamar” at Tanglewood Aug. 10 and 11.

Zuidam explores these questions through the strange story of the Spanish queen Juana la Loca (Juana the Crazy). A daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the sister of Henry VIII's first queen, and the mother of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Juana was married to Philip, a Hapsburg prince. It was an arranged marriage but at least briefly a passionate one. When they met in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1496, when Juana was 17, they went to bed together almost immediately, before the marriage took place.

Philip had a wandering eye, however, and Juana became wildly jealous, banishing all young and beautiful women from the court and from the servants' quarters; only the old and ill-favored could find employment.

Philip died young, within 10 years of his marriage, perhaps poisoned by his father-in-law. Juana travelled about with his embalmed corpse, repeatedly opening the coffin to embrace it, until she was finally locked up in a monastery where she spent the last 46 years of her life gazing at her husband's tomb, singing and speaking to him.

Over the years, Juana's bizarre story has attracted poets, painters, novelists, composers, and filmmakers. One of the great poems about Juana is by Federico Garcia Lorca (the subject of Golijov's opera) ; Carlos Fuentes wrote a novel about her, “Terra Nostra”. Giancarlo Menotti's opera “Juana la loca” was composed as the vehicle for the farewell appearances of America's favorite soprano, Beverly Sills. And the 2002 film “Mad Love” was also about the crazed queen.

Zuidam's treatment is unusual, as you would expect from this original and unpredictable composer, who has been a regular visitor to Tanglewood since 1989, when he was 24. Several of his works have been featured in various editions of the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, including the stunning hourlong “McGonagall-Lieder”, songs written on texts by the figure often cited as the worst poet in the English language. Zuidam's music is not well known in Boston, but pianist Kathleen Supove did play his “Spank”- a piece she described as an amalgam of Gyorgi Ligeti, Latin dance music, and Jimi Hendrix.

Zuidam has a look to him. He resembles David Bowie in “The Man Who Fell To Earth” ; once he bounded onto the stage after a premier clad in a faux-leopard shirt. And he has an eye and an ear for unusual subjects for musical discourse – his previous opera “Freeze”, which premiered in Munich a decade ago, was about the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst.

Zuidam was his own librettist for “Rage d'Amours”, excerpting actual historical documents in several languages and arranging them in a theatrical collage one can only call Zuidamesque. A councillor reads Philip a letter warning him to beware of poisoners - oblivious to the fact that the king is dying of poison in front of his eyes. Juana sings passionate passages from the biblical “Song of Songs” to the dead Philip while monks describe in exact and horrifying detail the process of dissecting and embalming the king's corpse.

One of the characters is the composer Pierre de la Rue, and some of his music lies behind Zuidam's score. “Philip had good musical taste, and he tried to steal Josquin des Pres for his court. I studied a facsimile of a 1504 choir book from the court of Philip and Juana, and while I didn't use any of the actual material – I couldn't write a contemporary opera using Renaissance polyphony - I did use the choir book as a way of entering the world of thought of the period. And once I was there I was free to do my own thing.” One unusual aspect of the score is that much of Juana's music is scored for three performers singing in a trio. “I did this for a musical reason”, Zuidam explains, “and as a way to bring Juana's world of thought to life - the voices represent different aspects of her character.”

The vocal line of the most prominent of the Juanas was written for the extended range and special vocal skills of the new-music soprano Lucy Shelton, a Tanglewood Music Center faculty member and a friend of Zuidam's for more than a dozen years.

Shelton began singing in opera about 30 years ago, in a production of Mozart's “The Marriage of Figaro” at Harvard that was conducted by composer John Adams and staged by actor John Lithgow. Her exceptional musical abilities took her career in another direction, but she finds the opportunity to return to the stage “thrilling.”

“This opera is quirky and wonderful, like Rob, and the music is lyrical and very beautiful”, Shelton says. “He knows how to write for the voice and the orchestration is magical – the arrangement for piano can't get close to what the orchestra actually sounds like. Rob has a great sense of drama, and he always chooses the right notes. The piece is very dark yet very moving, and when Philip appears from the tomb to sing a final duet with Juana, the music is heavenly”.

Zuidam says : ”The relationship of Philip and Juana was strange before he died and even more so after he was dead. She could not let him go, and he remained the object of her passion for the rest of her life; she didn't listen to the part of the wedding vow that says ‘till death do us part'! She had a teenager's first crush on him and never outgrew it; she lived out the dream. Most of us have our hearts broken at 17, but we get on with living”.

Zuidam finds that the people who have read his libretto and who have been rehearsing his music have very strong and conflicting reactions to it. “I think the story has a whole lot to do with the eternal war of the sexes – women who hear the story say, ‘Well, she really loved him'. Men say, ‘She was out of her mind'. Musical theatre makes it possible for very different things to be going on at the same time – different possibilities don't block each other's view. What I like about the opera is how it is simultaneously utterly romantic and utterly cynical – you can find what you are looking for in it”.

© The Boston Globe 2003

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