by Coril Prochnow, Review Coordinator
Long Beach Opera delivers memorable musical experiences with every production, and their most recent project is no exception. In Marilyn Forever, LBO invites the audience into an intimate visit with Marilyn Monroe during the last hours of her life. The story of her death is legendary: At the height of her fame and beauty, she was discovered dead of a drug overdose in the bedroom of her Brentwood home, lying on the bed, naked, carefully covered by a sheet.
Using audio clips of Marilyn’s voice over a dark stage, the opera quickly takes the audience back in time to the early 1960’s with an interview for Marie Claire magazine which includes Marilyn’s famous comment, “If I’m generally anything, I guess I’m generally miserable!” As the sound of her voice fades away, black and white video footage from Marilyn’s death and funeral procession is projected onto scrims suspended across the entire stage, midway back, ceiling to floor, while the first notes of the overture/prologue rise slowly, mournfully from a custom ensemble in the pit: two violas, cello, string bass, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, french horn and percussion. No high, happy voices; all dark, deep tones. Scratches and jumps in the archival footage secure the time period, recalling an era of film-based news clips, the almost-forgotten culture of television journalism from the days of Edward R. Murrow.
Eventually the bluesy melancholy of a tenor sax takes over from the violas, part of a jazz trio with piano and string bass that is positioned upstage right, behind the scrim, under a muted spotlight, and the action begins with the Rehearsal Director (baritone Lee Gregory) calling out for Miss Monroe, who is late. Time drags by until she finally hurries in, and we understand that this is a normal scenario for her, each minute of delay representing perhaps hours, days or even weeks of real-life waiting by studios, casts and crews during her final months. Mr. Gregory’s ringing baritone range covers tender, high pianissimos and booming dramatic tones, making it well within his reach to portray not just the Rehearsal Director, but also each of Marilyn’s three husbands, suitors, a mourner and even a mocking imitation of Marilyn.
A stroke of brilliance in LBO’s production is that director Andreas Mitisek has cast two different Marilyns to appear within the same production, representing the two sides of her nature – public vs. private. Downstage right is used exclusively for staging scenes from the “public” Marilyn’s life, performed by soprano Jamie Chamberlin. Downstage left is dedicated to a recreation of the Brentwood bedroom, the scene of her death, where Danielle Marcelle Bond, as the “private” Marilyn, suffers the torments of her self-destructive inner world. Although a departure from the original vision of the composer, the use of two Marilyns is such an effective aid in the storytelling that it is hard to imagine the opera without them both.
Tenor Robert Norman and baritone Adrian Rosales appear as “Tritones”, augmenting Marilyn’s story in the style of a Greek chorus as they comment on the goings-on from a position safely upstage left, behind the scrim. They are clearly visible when a spotlight targets them but as soon as the light is off, they completely disappear. Norman’s easy, rich tenor and Rosales’ lyrical baritone make their duet lines resonant and well balanced; both are fine actors.
An important additional role for each is that of videographer. When they are not singing, they shoot video images of each Marilyn in maximum zoom for closeups that fill the scrim when projected. The quiver of a lip, graceful fingers caressing a photograph, the curve of a bare throat and shoulder all read like sequences from an old movie when they appear in black and white on the giant “movie screen”, except that they match what is happening on the stage and are clearly being simulcast. The images are mesmerizing as the cameras pan over them ever so slowly, posterized by stark lighting; no wrinkles, no blemishes, just smooth, perfect beauty. This creates an intense intimacy between the audience and Marilyn, the audience becoming voyeurs, so close they can reach out and touch her. It was part of Marilyn’s magic as an actress that the camera was her lover and the audience her most intimate friend, maybe the only “real” friend she ever had.
Because the camera work is such a powerful aspect of the storytelling, the instrumental music seems like a film score, underpinning the stage and video dramas. Singing is mostly conversational in style, except for a couple of upbeat jazz numbers which break up the overall somber, reflective mood. Ms. Chamberlin’s lovely soprano conveys vulnerability and tenderness as Marilyn’s public voice and is charming and flexible in the pop songs, while still offering plenty of power for dramatic turns. Ms. Bond’s warm, clean mezzo brings the inner Marilyn to life, intense and haunting, with a ringing upper extension. Both Marilyns easily navigate difficult tonalities, capturing the essence of the woman in different ways vocally and physically.
Kudos go to Adam Flemming for the video design. Mixing real-time images with 50-year-old news reels and abstract patterns, he creates a hypnotic additional dimension to the onstage story, supporting the performers and fascinating the audience. Dan Weingarten‘s spectacular lighting effects bring every quadrant of the stage to life, guiding the audience through the action and making it easy to relate to each character as they take the stage.
The opera feels like a mood painting; a long nostalgic dip into Marilyn’s extraordinary beauty and madness; a poem that breathes in Norma Jeane and breathes out Marilyn; intoxicating, forlorn, exotic, full of regrets. Like Marilyn, it ends “unfinished” – on an unresolved major 7th.
The audience’s enthusiastic reaction and sold-out performances left no doubt that this production was a major success.
Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff