Marilyn steeped in beautiful melancholia

Bryars’ intimate, operatic look at Marilyn is steeped in beautiful melancholia. Gordon Forester, Limelight (Australia’s Classical Music Magazine) | 1 March 2015

Australian premiere | ABC Studios, Adelaide | February 27, 2015

A prostrate woman lies beneath a white sheet. Is she dead or merely asleep? While we consider whether this story starts at the end, or somewhere mid-fame, an operatic irregularity presents; double bassist and composer Gavin Bryars takes to the stage to perform. Jazz trio to our left, octet orchestra to our right, and a body on the floor suggests that this is no ordinary opera. The white cyclorama and minimalist set evoke a sense of simplicity and emptiness; the latter, we will learn, an unwelcome lifelong companion of screen legend Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Forever is her elegiac story and it is beautifully told.

Marilyn Bowering’s libretto poetically reveals much about the star’s emotions, fortunately avoiding an expose of any conspiracy theories surrounding the legend. This is a classy account and Bryars’ empathy inducing creation feels respectful of the star who died in 1962, aged only 36.

Joel Ivany directs an ensemble that works skillfully amongst the filmic setting. Soprano Anne Grimm stars as Marilyn Monroe, appearing in the famous white halter neck dress worn by Monroe in the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch. Grimm’s attention to detail is laudable. She has mastered a glance, a stare, a turn of the head that is every bit Monroe-esque. As a singer however, she is unlike the portrayed; there’s no breathiness, rather a clarity that draws us in to the storytelling with ease. Her stage presence is graceful with an undercurrent of the pain felt by the actor who grew from a child no one wanted.

Richard Morris is superb as “The Men”; his warm tone and range impresses. Sometimes brusque, sometimes sleazy, he transforms easily from men who want a piece of Marilyn, to husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. Tenor Adam Goodburn and bass Nicholas Cannon bookend the proceedings and their harmonization adds another delicious layer of musicality.

Conducting the tight production is Bill Linwood who ably steers the wonderful score filled with charms of the era interspersed with fabulous smoky jazz. The rhythm of this opera is only part of its magnetism; the juxtaposing genres contained within leave no room for thoughts of sameness. Listen out for AK Coope’s stellar bass clarinet lines and some frankly awesome improv by Julien Wilson on tenor saxophone (Wilson’s “character” is so cool he took to reading a newspaper like he was genuinely disinterested in the stage action).

Marilyn Forever is an intimate piece steeped in beautiful melancholia. Jealousy, fame and the search for love collide making this soulful opera with a perfect ending an Adelaide Festival highlight.
Marilyn Forever runs until March 1 and was recorded for ABC Classic FM for delayed national broadcast.