Sex, Death and Madness

By Michael Nock

Juana of Castille (1479-1555) was the third child of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabelle of Spain, the devoutly Catholic monarchs who financed Christopher Columbus in his fateful quest Westward. Though Juana held the titles of Countess of Flanders, Duchess of Burgundy, Archduchess of Austria, and finally Queen of Castile, a more legendary sobriquet persistently attached itself to the Spanish Princess: la Loca ("the Mad"). Through her alleged dementia was likely a function of several factors, both environmental and neurological, the blame is most often and conveniently laid on a profoundly obssesive, seemingly irrational love for her husband, Philip the Handsome, Habsburg prince, son of Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian, and the ruler of ther Duchy of Burgundy.

After a long betrothal, Juana and Philip first met in October 1496, and reportedly fell in love at first sight. True to his famed sexual appetites, Philip prematurely called for a Chaplain to bless the couple - impatient to consummate the marriage before the actual wedding ceremony the next day - so impressed was he with the fortuitous beauty of his prearranged bride. Juana was too instantly and hopelessly ensnared by her bridegroom's legendary looks, and later his sexual prowes (Philip would often keep her in line by threatening to withhold his husbandly duties). The honeymoon was to be a short one, however. Though Juana would be inexticably beholden to her husband for the rest of her life (even after his death), the sybaritic and indolent Philip eagerly abandoned himself to the capricious sensuality of his youth: hunting, sport, and pretty girls held more fascination than his captivated wife.

Aware of her husband's promiscuity, Juana cultivated a violent jealousy; she is rumored to have once forcibly cut the hair of a woman whose golden tresses had attracted him. In an earnest misogyny, she refused to be attended by courtly ladies, contemptuosly banishing all females from her company, often in angry fits. During long periods of seperation from her husband, Juana became detached, solitary and given to unpredictable behavior, wailing for Philip or staging wild escapes in hopes of returning to his side. As Juana's apparent mental instability grew she became less an agent of her own will, at times a virtual prisoner of her husband's or her parents' whim.

Upon the death of Queen Isabelle, Juana should have become Queen of Castile. (As Ferdinand's royal seat was in the neighboring kingdom of Aragon, he held rights to his Kingship in Castile by marriage only. Isabelle and Ferdinand's union was an attempt to unite Spain under one hereditary patrimony). But it was Philip who seized on this opportunity to lay claim to the throne himself, aided by the "unfit" mental state of his wife. Hovering sullen and detached in the background, Juana was at best a pawn throughout a protracted political battle against Ferdinand's efforts to carry on as Governor of Castile per the terms of Isabelle's will. Philip arrived in his new kingdom in April 1506; five months later he was dead, the victim of a violent and degenerative fever of unknown cause. (There is a strong chance that he was the victim of poisoning at the hands of Ferdinand, whose political enemies often died prematurely under mysterious circumstances.)

At the time of Philip's death, Juana was pregnant with her sixth and final child. Thus it was even more shocking given her condition when she ordered her husnand's body exhumed ( a sacrilege) from its new tomb at the Monastery of Miraflores near Burgos so that she might embark on a long journey with the corpse to Granada (some 370 miles), where her mother was buried and where Philip would be laid to final rest. Perpetual funeral Masses and dirges wrre held during the bizarre procession, as Juana clung to a Carthusian monk's suggerstion that Philip might resurrect, and often opened his coffin to inspect the decomposing body for signs of life. This macabre odyssey ended before Philip's cadaver reached its destination, due in part to Juana's reunion with Ferdinand, who was shocked to see his emaciated and filthy daughter.

Soon empowered as regent for Juana's son Charles (the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who like his mother would end his life in a monastic sort of seclusion), Ferdinand retired his shattered daughter to the monastery of St. Clara in Tordesillas, where she would remain for the rest of her life. Philip's body was interred there so that she could look out her window at his tomb. Isolated, and uninterested in the luxury or power that was hers as Queen, Juana lived in effective poverty, unwashed and dressed in rags, staring at the play of candlelight on the walls - a docile lifestyle punctuated by periodic outbursts of shrieking frenzy. The rightful Queen of a united Spain after her father's death, she remained in retreat from existence: a forgotten myth as her country marched forward with an increasing ambition in world affairs.

As a native of the Netherlands, a country once part of Philip's domain of Burgundy, Robert Zuidam (b.1964) first became acquainted with the story of Juana and Philip as a schoolboy. The story was especially resonant to him, as Philip's long delayed burial recalled for the composer personal family history: his great-grandmother (also named Johanna) died during the days of World War I, and her burial was also long-postponed because she had not received the last rites, due to a lack of money to pay the priest. Zuidam was told that "the liquids ran out of the coffin." This macabre detail deeply impressed his imagination, surely sticking in his mind when he came to consider the powerfully eerie image of Philp's similar predicament as a chilling component of a theater piece. Actually, given both the obvious dramatic potential of such a lurid tale and opera's tendency to historical subjects, it seems surprising that the story was not subjected to operatic treatment ealier in music history or by a "major" composer - Verdi came close, choosing Juana's great-grandson, Don Carlos, as the subject for his eponymous opera. Two relatively recent settings are Eduardo Alonso-Crespo's Juana la Loca (1991) and La Loca (1979) by noted opera composer Guan Carlo Menotti, though the latter is not one of Menotti's better known works. Additionally, two treatments exist by lesser-known 19th-century composers who clearly came to the subject as a result of their Spanish heritage: Doña Juana la Loca of Emilio Serrano (1850-1939) and Juana la Loca (now lost) of Eleodoro Ortiz de Zárste (1865-1952).

No stranger to Tanglewood audiences, Zuidam was fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center in both 1989 and 1990, where he studied with Lukas GFoss and Oliver Knussen- from whom he claims to have "learned the ropes of the international music scene- and won the Koussevitzky Prize for his work Fishbone . He returned to Tanglewood in 1999 as an artist-in-residence, and his work has been frequently featured during the Festival of Contemporary Music. Zuidam began his formal training with Philippe Boesmand\s and Klaas de Vries at the Rotterdam Conservatory. His colorful musical past as both a classically trained pianist and guitarist in a punk rock band has imbued his music with a diversity of styles. Retaining an affinity for the compositional procedures of Modernism, from his rock experience he also gleaned a strong and direct sense of rhythm, which he prioritizes: "Rhythm is for me the most fascionating musical parameter, because it represents what is most logical and measurable in music, as well as what is most physical and intuitive." Zuidam is also an active writer, as music-essayist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad . In coming to set the story of Juana, Zuidam had a mind towards what would make interesting theatre, while also considering the narrative constraints of the opera's projected length. Accordingly, he eschews most of the internecine politics of mariage and heredity in Renaissance Europe, part and parcel of philip's marriage to Juana and his pretension to the throne (which, say, Verdi, might have included in a multi-act setting). Rather, it is the torrid substance of Juana's passion for Philip that drives his opera, revealing the potential of a shorter piece for intense and singular focus, and invoking the tortured love stories of one-act verismo operas like Cavalleria Rusticana and I pagliacci . uidam is familiar with setting historical subjects, though his first opera Freeze ( a 1994 co-production of the Munich Biennale and the Holland Festival), dealt with something more contemporary ("still in our collective memory," as he says): the Patty Hearst kidnapping. The new challenge of Rage d'Amours , with its subject more remote, was how to render its characters identifiable with a contemporary audience. In writing his libretto for Freeze , Zuidam mythologized the Hearst saga in order to create an abstract satire of modernity and media. For the present work, the composer again turned to a sort of mythic approach - here focused on a more universal aspect of the human condition, one that could transcend time and cultural milieu - resulting in a kind of parable on the extremes of love, an essay on passion. Zuidam calls Rage a "more direct piece than Freeze , more heartfelt," which he wanted "to be about love in a more abstract way... It shows what an enigmatic force love is, how beautiful it can be, but also how destructive."

Juana's passion is closer in spirit6 to current conceptions of romantic love than that of her own era, when marriage was rarely little more than a business transaction. Yet for Zuidam there remains a unique quality to Juana's affection for Philip, alien to the modern world: a concept of devotion and a capacity to surrender oneself beyond all reason, more a constituent of Romanticism than of Juana's or our time. Her morbid fixation with his corpse - at which she gazes lovingly as if still alive - is "most puzzling" for the composer (especially given the way that Philip treated Juana in life). Searching for a rational explanation for this, he observes that once Philip has died, Juan is indeed finally able to have love on her terms, without concern for his straying from her: as an inanimate object, he is at last totally in her posession. Zuidam locates a positive aspect in this otherwise depressing relationship, noting that "in a strange way, Juana's love is truly unconditional... courageous in its ignorance of death." (The composer finds still further significance in this aspect of the story in that, for him, "dragging around a dead king stands for the decline of European culture.")

The action of Rage d'Amours intercepts Juana's biography in January of 1506, with the couple's voyage by sea from the Netherlands to Spain in order to assume the throne, a trip that nearly ended in Philip's drowning. The libretto is crafted in three languages, Spanish, Latin, and Medieval French - "a fairy tale kind of French" for Zuidam. This reflects not only the languages of Philip, Juana, and the Catholic Church, but also the composer's scrupulous research into several primary sources; an anonymous chronicle of tyhe 1506 voyage to Spain, found in Collection des voyages des souverains des Pays-Bas (L.P. Gachard, Brussels, 1884); Opus Epistolarum (Amsterdam, 1675) of Petrus Martyr, a confident of Philip and Juana, and La Reina Doña Juana la Loca (A. Rodriguez Villa, Madrid 1892). Almost every word in the libretto's text - Philip's conduct during the storm at sea, the details of the dissection of his corpse, Philibert Naturel's letter, the description of the Queen's squalid existence, etc. - are to be found in the above, sometimes "reshuffled and trimmed" by the composer to suit his dramatic needs.

In adapting the material for his libretto, Zuidam sometimes had to "activate" the language of historical accounts and letters by changing verb tenses from the past to present, in order to avoid an opera that is all narration or letter reading, again in consideration of what makes good theatre (for example the washerwoman's complaint, which comes from a letter from the bishop of Malaga to King Ferdinand of Aragon). Furthermore, he deftly assimilates the specific recorded facts of history into the more metaphorical world of art; the poetic imagery of Juana's postmortem affections already seems a truth more artistic than fiction , with necrophilia always a titillating component of opera, as in Strauss's Salome . The The balloon attached to Philip to keep him afloat in Scene 2 (a matter of record) remains attached in Scene 3, now deflated to portend his imminent death. Zuidam portrays the embalming of Philip's corpse as narrated in the chronicles to accentuate the extreme power of Juana's love, as she believes in the chimera of his resurrection even after the grisly confirmation of her husband's irrevocable death: "on stage the whole body is dissected, but for her there is no difference," the composer notes. The multilingual libretto, derivative of the multiple languages of the historical record, assumes a symbolic import as well in Scene 8, where Philip and Juana sing to one another in different tongues, a poignant reflection on the seemingly different wavelengths on which they were in life.

The historical Juana and Philip were great patrons of music who employed such Renaissance composers as Agricola and Pierre de la Rue, and the sonority of early music appropriately informs much of the opera. As Zuidam notes, "when you're dealing with monks singing in Latin, it's very hard to avoid the melodic curves of Gregorian chant" (though the chant-like material in Rage is not a quotation of any particular source). Zuidam's music has often been remarkes upon for an affinity with early music, and here the composer specifically turned to a study of Renaissance music and musical notation - in particular a 1504 choir-book made for Juana and Philip - which showed him "a way to think" as he assimilated the gestures of the era into his own style. The prominent vocal textures of Rage are apposite given the dominance of vocal music in the Renaissance, though when the orchestra makes its presence felt it often does so with violent force, as when Juana discovers Philip has died. Further expanding the vocal forces of the opera, Zuidam casts the character of Juana not in one voice but in three competing voices, which has the added symbolism of portraying the multiple "voics" in Juana's mind. These three "Juanas" are first heard singing in chorus together in Scene 1, where close harmonies and medieval hoquet-type effects create an appropriately demented sound while evoking early motet styles. Zuidam makes only one direct quote of early music in the opera: Delicta Juventutis , composed for Philip's funeral by Pierre de la Rue. So intimate was Pierre de la Rue with the couple, in fact, that Zuidam has identified him as as the anonymous chronicler of 1506, and installed him as narrator in Rage d'Amours , where he is known as Pierchon de Rue ("Little Pete from the street"), his nickname at court.

There is an element of non-linear time in Rage d'Amours , a function of Zuidam's desire to set the entire work in the dungeon in Tordesillas where Juana spent the last forty-six years of her life, which he sees "as a metaphor for her own brain, her imagination." Thus the action of the opera as it ensues is both flashback and a function of Juana's tortured mind. This enables the one fantastical departure from historic verisimilitude, Philip's "resurrection" in Scene 8, which is intended to capture the essence of the couple's first rapturous meeting. By portaying the moment that sparked Juana's passion at the work's end, giving the audience a glimpse of their love pure and uncorrupt, Zuidam seems to explain her irrational devotion to Philip retroactively. Also of significance in this final scene is the composer's deviation from primary sources in constructing his libretto, as he interpolates mmaterial from the Song of Songs , an apt decision when one recalls that the eternal theme of this tale surpasses its mere historical locus . Among the lines appropriated from this most sensuous book of the Bible is the especially apropos sentiment "Love is as strong as death," which the historical Juana seems to have endeavored to prove, and which the operatic Juana - aided by the creative licenses of art - indeed succeeds in proving.

© Michael Nock-Tanglewood Music Centre