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ACQUANETTA - Fisher Center at Bard

“I know you want everything to be clear and simple” is the last chorus of the fabulous chamber opera, “Acquanetta”, about the voluptuous, B-movie actress who had a sunstorm of celebrity in the 1940s. Indeed, the narrative structure “Acquanetta” is rather uncomplicated based on a single scene in the cult classic “Captive Wild Women” where Acquanetta played a wild, ravishing creature surgically transmuted from an ape by a mad doctor. But “Acquanetta” 's themes are anything but simple. By fusing the essentials of cinema, opera and drama to stunning effect, “Acquanetta” renders a mesmerizing, multi-layered contemplation of illusion and identity. Directed by Daniel Fish, who re-interpreted “Oklahoma” (which started at Bard), “Acquanetta” is both an amazing, technical tour-de-force and thrilling, theatrical experience.

The 70-minute opera startlingly opens with loud, bold, electronic chords and the b&w projection, in old 35mm screen aspect ratio, of a close up of the iris of a human eye. If Buenel’s "Un Chien Andalou" comes to mind, that’s OK because what follows is drenched in mystery and horror that borders on the surreal. A pull-away shot slowly reveals the full features of the beautiful Acquanetta (played by the beautiful and beautifully-voiced Rebecca L. Hargrove) getting made-up for a scene. The eerie, opening music with a chorus of stylized, spooky “ooohs and ahhhs” has morphed into an aria, “Conceal Me,” in which Acquanetta, as actress, subverts her true identity (whatever that is) to the camera. Indeed, Acquanetta, nee Mildred Davenport, deliberately created herself an enigma, never telling the same life story twice and claiming an exotic Native American heritage. (She was, in fact, more African American than anything else.)

The libretto, nakedly descriptive in vocabulary and forcefully declarative in prose, by Deborah Hartman relates the POV of the ape (Eliza Bagg), the mad doctor (TIMUR), his nurse aka Brainy Woman (Amelia Watkins), and director (Christopher Burchett) to the filming of the scene. All actors are studio contract players; everyone’s party to the illusion of film. The ape: “Because I’m inside this costume, you can’t tell…” who I really am. The doctor: “Who am I today? The mad scientist”. The nurse: “I could play a real woman... don’t take my brain.” Even Acquanetta gets objectified: the director admonishes her, “…don’t say a word. It’s all in your eyes”.

The score by Michael Gordon is a loud, brooding, tense composition, played by the sextet, Bang on a Can Opera, which turns more ominous as the scene being filmed becomes violent: think a darker, richer version of Bernard Hermann’s Hitchcock scores with electric bass and guitar instead of lots of strings. By Gordon’s admission, it’s noisy, too: think of the booming, scratchy soundtracks of Hollywood horror movies of the 40s and 50s.

The vision that integrates the story on projected film with live stage action is signature Daniel Fish, working with video designer Joshua Higgason, in a mode similar to the live video of Curly and Judd’s tacit death pact in “Oklahoma”. The technical finesse which melds movie set, vocal performances and live projection is astonishing; in fact there are as many - 20 - “technicians” (some part of the action) in staging this opera, as the five principals, chorus of eight (The Choir of Trinity Wall Street) and six-member orchestra. Most vivid is the transition from b&w film (illusion) to natural color (reality) to supersaturated color (surreal). Visual humor, albeit ghoulish, punctuates the horror-movie mis-en-scene: a spilled box of movie popcorn sitting in a pool of blood on the laboratory floor was my favorite. .

Most remarkable about “Acquanetta” is that it transacts without a trace of camp. In finale, when Acquanetta, more ravishingly beautiful and fiercer than ever, observes the bloody tragedy around her, she acknowledges her own enigmatic complexity : “I am a beautiful monster… the secret you want to ignore is inside this costume” “Acquanetta” makes plain that the secret to great art, that illusory, transporting theatrical magic it achieves with breathtaking style, is not that simple either.

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