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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Opera Review: "Wake, My Beauty, Wake!"

The Prototype Festival unleashes Acquanetta.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Image from Acquanetta by Maria Baranova-Suzuki © 2018 Prototype Festival.

A hovering, rotating camera rig. A mysterious room. A Hollywood starlet. A transplanted brain. And the thunderous sound of an electric guitar, electric bass, three string players and an electronic keyboard.. These are just some of the elements that made up Acquanetta, the new opera by Bang on a Can! Founder David Gordon that opened the Prototype Festival last night.

Acquanetta was written in 2005 but this performance marked the world stage premiere of this ambitious one-act chamber opera. The show is a collaboration between Bang on a Can Opera and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street. Most of the visuals are projected in black and white on a giant movie screen, set up in the cavernous Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, a post-industrial performance space, all the way at the vinegary end of Jay Street in Brooklyn. Director Daniel Fish and video designer Joshua Higginson use extreme closeups, coupled with a wall of sound to create a disconcerting, even assaultive opening.

The opera was inspired by the original Acquanetta, a Hollywood starlet who made three B-pictures before she married a millionaire and became a disc jockey. Not much is known about the early life of this actress, who may have been born Mildred Davenport in Ozone, Wyoming. In her 11-year career she made a splash in shock-schlock like Jungle Woman and The Sword of Monte Cristo. This opera is based (very loosely) on the filming of Captive Wild Woman, the movie for which she is best remembered. (The plot is something about a brain transplant from primate to nubile young starlet--don't ask!)

Part of the intent of Mr. Gordon's work is to unsettle his audience and mess with their perceptions of what is happening and what is real. The camera system only grants limited amounts of visual information, which is made harder to interpret by the wailing, melismatic singing of soprano Mikaela Bennett in the title role. The words of the libretto were secondary to the wall of sound being generated. Although there are supporting parts, there is no dialogue and very little communication between the characters.

Indeed, the libretto of this show (by Deborah Artman) seems more like a song cycle than opera: there are set numbers and even ensembles but they follow the art-inflected experimentation of Pete Townshend or even David Bowie. Each song builds on small musical cells, a kind of minimalist approach that trades the mincing rhythms of John Adams for large-scale bricks, towering structures created by the six musicians and the choral singers with little room for the soloists.

Happily, as Acquanetta ground through its 70 minutes w the work became more inviting and less oppressive. The music acquired a bluesy inflection in the second half, with vocal solos taken by Eliza Bagg as the Ape, and the Director, sung by bass Matt Boehler. It was revealed that the claustrophobic room held not just Acquanetta but a classic Hollywood pinup Nurse. Things came to a head when a saw came out, and all the players (except for Acquanettea herself) were sprawled on the floor covered in stage blood.

The last part of this opera is about tearing down the walls and the illusion of reality that had first been presented to the viewer. This proved to be the strongest and most effective part of Mr. Gordon's work, making good musical and dramatic sense. With its pulsing rhythms, amplified music and oppressive atmosphere, Acquanetta is a bold work that may not be to everybody's taste. Then again, a century ago, neither was Wozzeck.

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