Operatic world premieres are a tricky business. Some operas have passed quickly into oblivion while others (like Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra) receive successfully premieres and then lay neglected for years. We are still waiting to see another opera company perform Angle of Repose, Andrew Imbrie’s bicentennial opera which was warmly welcomed at its San Francisco premiere in 1976.
One of the most eagerly anticipated works hits the boards in San Diego next June when Gian-Carlo Menotti’s new opera, Juana La Loca, is premiered. With Beverly Sills in the title role, a great deal of attention will be focused on the San Diego Opera. By using her clout in the musical industry, Sills believes she can get the opera recorded. The strong ties she has with Tito Capobianco and Julius Rudel also assure that the opera will not die after a handful of performances.
As she explained last fall, “The cost of world premieres is so terribly exorbitant. I can guarantee it five performances with Tito. It will undoubtedly go to New York, so if you had the City Opera, that’s at least a dozen performances, which is not a bad start. Tito knows the stage of the New York State Theater like the palm of his hand. When Carl Toms designed The Merry Widow for San Diego, it was easy to tailor it to the limitations of both houses. I’m going to get the opera televised,” she adds. “It’s already in the hands of an oil company.”
When Sills and Capobianco first had an idea for a new work, their thoughts centered around Carlotta and Maximilian. They wrote to Menotti, who said that while it was appealing to him, he would rather work with something different. Capobianco then suggested Juana La Loca, the mad queen of Spain and daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella (the sponsors of Christopher Columbus). Through an arranged marriage Juana had been wed to Phillip the Beautiful.
Sills carefully laid out the background of the story. If you saw The Story of Adele H., that was Victor Hugo’s daughter. She was what you call a ‘folle d’amour.' She met a young man and went insane with love. Much the same thing happened when Juana met Phillip. She took one look at him and fell madly in love. She stayed that way until the day he died, despite the fact that he tried to dethrone her and tried to spread the rumor to the public that she was insane. At the time he was doing this, she was perfectly sane. But then, when he died and they needed her to be sane, she was totally out of her mind!”
The opera will be performed with one man playing the father (Ferdinand), and the husband (Philip), and the son (Charles). “You will see Juana when she is perfectly sane and Phillip is telling all the people she’s crazy and she realizes what he is doing to her. Finally, she gets a letter from her mother, who really lets her have it, saying this is not the way queens behave!” Beverly snickers. "So she gets herself dressed up in her royal robes with all her jewelry from top to bottom and goes into the room where Phillip is sitting on the throne.”
The scene takes place on a day of great celebration and the people are calling for their queen. "They have been hearing that she is insane and they want to see her. Juana pushes open the doors and goes out on the balcony. At that point a great roar of support comes from the crowd. She comes back into the room and orders Phillip off the throne,” Sills smiles gleefully. "Then she says to him: poor Phillip, not only does he have had a mad wife, but he has a public that’s totally mad about his mad wife! And she goes around the room and accuses each one of the members of treason.”
Because of his beauty, Juana was also insanely jealous of Phillip. At one point she follows him to an inn where he is having an affair with her lady in waiting. He, too, turns on her saying, “This is no way for a queen to act.” Juana replies in anguish, "I’m not a queen. I’m just a woman in a queen’s costume!”
Sills promises that the death scene will be moving. Her voice falls to a whisper as she describes it. “When he dies, she cradles Phillip in her arms, despite all he’s done to her. They come to take him away and she won’t let them go. 'Go away,' she says, 'the king is sleeping. You can’t have him.' At that moment, of course, she is totally insane. And it’s at that moment when he dies that they need her desperately to be their queen. Desperately! And she’s totally out of her mind!”
Beverly is relishing the experience. ”The nice thing,” she says, “is that Gian-Carlo is so excited about it. He writes us all the time. He writes me and sends Tito carbon copies; writes Tito letters and send me carbon copies.”
At one point Donizetti’s Maria Padilla had been suggested as a vehicle for Sills. In it, Maria has a mad scene where she throws the usurper off the throne, wrenching the crown from her head. Sills has pretty much laid the bel canto repertoire to rest, but is always attracted to royal robes. “Ill be glad to play a queen again. I love those kinds of roles. I love the scope of it, the span of her life. We’re going to do it through the eyes of the three men, so to see her from different attitudes – it gives me this marvelous chance to act!”
Menotti’s operas have always made for exciting theater. Many of us grew up watching Amahl and the Night Visitors on television every Christmas. In recent years, San Diego Opera and New York City Opera have been performing The Saint of Bleecker Street, which still packs a wallop. With Capobianco directing and Sills acting up a storm, Crazy Joan’s resurrection might be the best thing that ever happened to her.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on February 16, 1978.