“‘Acquanetta’ explodes from the screen!” at Prototype Festival

Wed Jan 10, 2018 at 1:02 pm
XX in the title role of Michael Gordon's "Acquanetta" Tuseday night at the Prototype Festival. Photo:

Mikaela Bennett in the title role of Michael Gordon’s “Acquanetta” Tuesday night at the Prototype Festival. Photo: Maria Baranova-Suzuki

There are premieres, then there are premieres.

No one in their right mind would have rolled out a red carpet onto the slushy sidewalk in front of the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center Tuesday night. Even so that was the site for the first performance in this year’s Prototype Festival, the world premiere of the chamber version of Michael Gordon’s opera Acquanetta.

With a sneaky, almost overpowering emotional and cultural effect–as well as massively fun–this was a blockbuster experience that left the audience replaying the reels in their minds.

Acquanetta is an opera that is also a movie, and an opera about the movies; it’s also an opera about someone in the movies who has been embedded in cultural memory through the inexorable power of the moving image.

Acquanetta, née Mildred Davenport, was a 1940s model and actress who appeared in a handful of B-movies, the most famous of which was Tarzan and the Leopard Woman. Her métier, such as it was, was B-grade horror flicks like Jungle Woman, Dead Man’s Eyes, and Captive Wild Woman. Her claim to minor fame was her striking, ethereal beauty—she not only glowed on the screen but seemed to be in another dimension—the kind that imprints itself permanently in memory even if glimpsed only briefly in a late-night, TV crebroadcast.

A minor demi-goddess, then, in our contemporary myth-making industry of Hollywood. The great brilliance of Gordon’s opera (and Deborah Artman’s libretto) is that they make that myth happen again, creating the character (played by soprano Mikaela Bennett) right in front of our eyes.

In “vivid black and white” and with “stereophonic sound,” this production is in the form of a movie. Daniel Fish’s direction is all about the screen, from the opening, scratchy close-up of a Acquanetta’s blinking eye. This is a live performance that happens almost entirely off-stage but shown as a movie. 

The opera/movie comes out of the plot of Captive Wild Woman, in which a mad doctor, played originally by John Carradine, transforms an ape into Acquanetta. Behind the character is the Doctor (the flamboyant tenor Timur, indulging seriously in the role), a nurse named Brainy Woman (soprano Amelia Watkins), the ape (Eliza Bagg, in and out of costume), and the movie’s Director (bass Matt Boehler, carrying a palpable weight of harried world-weariness).

The opera surrounds Acquanetta. The character sings at the start and the close, around 80 minutes later, and otherwise everything happens around her. Gordon’s score for an electrified version of the Bang on a Can ensemble and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, pushes out a wall of heavy metal sound and rock rhythms. It is so well made that every repetition builds tension and expressive force, and each drop in bass line and cadence leave their marks.

The movie is made around Acquanetta; the extras fidget, the makeup artist works on her and the Doctor, the Director tells the Ape he wants more intensity and asks the Brainy Woman to decide “what is real.” The Doctor adjusts his fake mustache. Everyone sets up and runs through a classic laboratory ritual scene, where the Doctor calls for “Ball syringe / Morphine / Blood / More blood! / More morphine!” It needs a retake, and then things spiral into disaster.

And always there is Acquanetta. This was a phenomenal performance by Bennett. Fresh out of Juilliard, her singing was excellent. Her voice has a natural, warm, creamy beauty, and to open she was able to make it sound eerie and disembodied.

The punchy, dramatic transformation is that after being an object upon which a myth is built, she sings for herself “I am your beautiful monster / The one with an invented past…My shadow cast upon the wall…the secret you want to ignore / is inside this costume.” That is a full-blown aria, the point toward which the work moves, and Bennett opened up with an expression that powered past and over the music.

She brought the entire form of the work to life. More than singing, she sits and stares out at the audience, through the screen, for the entirety of the opera, and her face is the dominant image for nearly the entire duration. There are few actors of any kind who can grip the audiences attention and express a deep array of thoughts and meanings just by sitting there, and Bennett was utterly magnetic throughout.

Gordon, who has put together one of the greatest bodies of work in contemporary classical music while somehow staying just off the radar, has created something consequential again with Acquanetta. Seeing it is fun in the way of great movies—every moment is vivid and compelling, and the sheer entertainment (which is spectacular) leaves a plangent, lasting aftertaste of emotional mystery and power.

That is a historic milestone, the most exalted high art form engaging with the means and meaning of the most important popular art form. As writer Geoffrey O’Brien has pointed out, movies have created a non-corporeal mind that we all share, and opera has needed 100 years to learn things from the movies. Gordon has learned, and now he’s teaching us all.

Acquanetta runs through January 14. The Prototype Festival continues through January 20. prototypefestival.org

2 Responses to ““‘Acquanetta’ explodes from the screen!” at Prototype Festival”

  1. Posted Jan 11, 2018 at 8:55 am by James

    Was at 1/10/18 performance. Brilliant and explosive, opened in front of us like a splash of cool blood. I want to get the soundtrack if possible. Micheal Nyman meets NIN.

  2. Posted Jan 12, 2018 at 3:24 pm by Evangeline Johns

    This was indeed a wonderful new age opera. Music, humor, great performances, and a wonderful libretto which brought clarity to this exotic, surprising work. I notice you quoted quite liberally from the libretto in your appreciative review. Cudos to Deborah Artman. I really “got” this show, having spent youthful years in Hollywood, and I think Deborah got Aquanetta, the woman. Amazing and rewarding work.

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