Marilyn Forever sounds like the title of a campy revue at the Cavern Club, but Long Beach Opera’s production at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro is a morose meditation on stardom, sex and self-destruction.
Unfortunately, this U.S. premiere never comes together. Is it the fault of Marilyn Bowering’s vague libretto, a jumble of half-factual, half-imagined episodes from Monroe’s life? Could it be 80 nonstop minutes of Gavin Bryars’ brooding, amorphous music? Is it director Andreas Mitisek’s unclear telling of the story, or his bizarre decision to split the role of Marilyn between two singers?
Bowering’s libretto is a memory play. Monroe lies dying on her bed, incidents from her life oozing through the barbiturate fog — a late arrival at a studio, an inability to sing (or act?), a boudoir scene with a man (possibly Arthur Miller), a mysterious booty call.
Is the libretto too ambiguous for its own good, or does it have latent possibilities for creative staging? Hard to tell here, as Mitisek’s design and direction either disregarded the libretto’s instructions or did a poor job rendering them comprehensible.
Mitisek divides the single role of Marilyn into two separate parts: overdose-suicide Marilyn (portrayed by Danielle Marcelle Bond) and past-memories Marilyn (Jamie Chamberlin). This drains the lead part of its bipolar showmanship. The role should spotlight a singer’s acting skills as she bounces back and forth from woozy, dying Marilyn to sex symbol or troubled wife.
The libretto uses familiar iconography: Monroe as an insecure woman whose radiant sexuality blinded men to her other traits. Bryars gives Marilyn’s part no compelling melodies, and the musical differentiation between her dying and lively personas is too subtle. To do justice to this character requires a singer with a dazzling, oversized voice and a magnetic stage presence.
Chamberlin possessed a firm, focused voice, but there was no brilliance to it. Her acting didn’t exaggerate enough the feminine qualities of Marilyn, winding up a mere simulacrum of Marilyn’s potency instead.
Bond’s voice had a bit more oomph, and she sold us on the pathetic, fading Marilyn, but it’s unclear if she could shift dramatically and vocally into the powerful movie star, if she were to one day inhabit the full role.
Marilyn’s part lies in an unexciting midrange for a mezzo soprano. There are few attention-grabbing high notes or meaty lows, the aspects of a mezzo voice that inspire composers to write for it. It would be enlightening to see what a superstar such as Joyce DiDonato or El?na Garan?a could do with this part; if they couldn’t breathe life into it, no one could.
There are two accompanying ensembles, a pit orchestra of low winds and strings and an onstage jazz trio of tenor sax, piano and bass (which the composer adequately, if unexcitingly, plucked on opening night). The overall sound of the ensemble was gray and muddy. The few times the score opened up were when the tenor saxophone (nicely played by Gavin Templeton) improvised over the ensembles.
Any one of Bryars’ chords was not very dissonant, but the way he connected those chords was untraditional. His harmonies slowly meandered up and down. The tonal aimlessness and the unrelenting darkness of the pit orchestra became oppressive after an hour — more variety would help.
The male lead, Lee Gregory, sang in an impressively solid baritone, becoming a director, husband or obscene phone caller as needed. Tenor Robert Norman and baritone Adrian Rosales were the chorus, occasionally stepping forward into the action, singing their subordinate parts cleanly. The musicians played competently under Bill Linwood’s direction.
Video cameras followed the two Marilyns, magnifying faces, arms, photos and prescription pill bottles on the huge screens behind the singers. Paradoxically, enlarging these things made them more emotionally distant — yet another dramatic miscalculation. The intimate moments should have been quiet and reflective, the showbiz movements more garish. Instead, Marilyn Forever turns the brilliant public and the tragic private personae of Monroe into an undistinguished, gooey smear of music and drama.
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Long Beach Opera at the Warner Grand Theatre, 478 W. Sixth St., San Pedro. Sun., March 29. (562) 432-5934, longbeachopera.org.
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