Horror movie opera

CA21150.20190613035144Acquanetta; music by Michael Gordon, libretto by Deborah Artman, is a one act chamber opera in ten scenes lasting around 70 minutes. It’s a sort of homage to the B movie horror genre and specifically riffs off the 1943 film Captive Wild Woman in which a mad scientist turns an ape into a sultry temptress. The opera got its North American premier in Brooklyn in January 2018 and was reviewed by Patrick Dillon in Opera Canada Volume LVIII No. 4. Subsequently a CD version was recorded in the studio.

The stage version of this work involved quite elaborate visuals including live projections so I wondered how it would work as a sound only recording. Bottom line is that it is really too musically repetitive for a CD. The “orchestral” music, which combines the musicians of the Bang on a Can Opera Ensemble with electronics, can perhaps be described as a fusion of minimalism, techno and metal. It unquestionably has a certain raw energy but it also has the relentless repetitiveness of techno. It’s combined with a vocal line that in a weird way is reminiscent of a da capo aria in that the same words are repeated over and over but here each syllable is sung on a single note, often strung out for several beats, and sung without ornamentation or vibrato. At least this makes the words clearly audible which, given there’s no printed text, is handy, but it’s not vocally exciting. A typical passage is in scene 8 Brainy Woman, where the Brainy Woman sings the phrase “Please don’t take my brain” over and over. It does get a bit more lyrical briefly in the final scene Beautiful Monster where soprano Mikaela Bennett (Acquanetta) gets a few moments where she can sing more operatically.

The performances from Bennett and her co-conspirators Emilia Watkins (Brainy Woman), Eliza Bagg (Ape), Matt Boehler (Director) and Timur (Doctor) are fine and everybody is well into the idiom as are the instrumentalists of Bang on a Can and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, conducted by Daniela Candellari. The recording sounds like a studio recorded rock album; there’s no sense of ambience, which is probably appropriate. As previously mentioned there’s no booklet and the liner information is pretty much limited to a cast and track listing.

If I had seen this work staged I might appreciate having the CD as a souvenir but it’s hard to recommend as a standalone.

This review first appeared in the Fall 2019 editiion of Opera Canada.

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