- Terra Incognita
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For over thirty years, Maria Irene Fornes, a Cuban-born American playwright, has lent an eloquent voice to the disenfranchised and inarticulate. Her knack for tackling big questions with a deceptive simplicity and directness has earned her a growing audience. Her most recent work, Terra Incognita, is a ninety-minute opera with virtuoso singers and a strong atonal score by Roberto Sierra, a Puerto Rican-born composer. The piece is an emblematic tone poem, a glory to the ear. It addresses the problems of historical revisionism and personal responsibility in a world governed not by spiritual and humane values but by the rules of big business. Like Fefu and Her Friends, which gestated for thirteen years, Terra Incognita is a work-in-progress. An early version was staged at the Dyonisia World Theatre Festival in Siena, Italy (25–26 May 1992); a revision was published in Theater 24:2 (1993); and between my two visits to INTAR, the final staging and various lines had been reconsidered, but the core held firm.
Terra Incognita substitutes conflict, stage poetry, and historical narratives for a linear plot. The opera is set in a small café in Palos, Spain, where three American tourists—Amalia (Jennifer Alagna) and Rob (Matthew Perri), a sister and brother, and Georgia (Candace Rodgers-O’Connor), their friend—have stopped for coffee. Their desultory conversation (duets and trios) about Prince Henry the Navigator and train schedules is interrupted by a charismatic bum, Cristobal (baritone Lawrence Craig). Once a businessman with a wife and family, Cristobal suffered a breakdown and came to believe he was the reincarnation of Christopher Columbus, whose experiences he appropriates. His disjointed lyrical monologues and inventive tropes (the world as an egg), dance-like antics, and invasions of the tourists’ space (sitting on Georgia’s lap) create confrontations rich in imaginative possibilities. He flirts, bullies, and cajoles, leading us through the dark landscape (“the terra incognita”) of the human soul. He is the voice of big business as he assures us that the mutineering crew, the naive natives, and the rich, virgin land were raw products to be molded into profit. The women, alternately repelled and spellbound, follow him in a spirited conga line.
His brown-frocked alter-ego, Bartolomé (tenor John Muriello), a disconsolate monk who seems as timeless as the Spanish hills that surround the café, also demands their attention. He is the counterposed voice of conscience. Most of his lines were taken from Friar Bartolomé de las Casas’s report to King Ferdinand of Spain. Fornes has included extensive program notes to clarify the historical references. Bartolomé’s laser-like concentration is in stark contrast to Cristobal’s fractured riffs and sweeping choreography. In a coup de théâtre, the monk transforms a large white cloth into a wind-filled sail and talks us through “coming about” and “tacking” in a visual evocation of a sea voyage. But his narrative soon turns to the “terra incognita” of America and graphic tales of mutilation and torture. In one of the most tender moments of the opera, Amalia reaches out for Rob, who has become paralyzed with terror as he listens, and pulls him into the safety of friendship. “Where are we,” Amalia asks, “in relation to all this?” It is the central question of the work.
Fornes’s response is couched in the dramatic schema. The three tourists form a modern parallel to the historical forces. Amalia with her erudite trivia and compulsive diary entries (“Rob is getting coffee for himself and me . . . Georgia is having tea,” she writes and sings) is recorded memory. Georgia’s interlude about her new red hat, which she models...