The Marilyn Monroe legend rises again

The Marilyn Monroe legend rises again in operatic form Graham Strahle, The Australian | 2 March 2015

KNOWN for his minimalist works such as Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, Gavin Bryars has come up with a shadowy, dreamlike piece in his chamber opera, Marilyn Forever. It is not about Marilyn Monroe in any biographical sense but rather a sequence of loosely connected scenes that describe the film star from within her own mind in the hours or days before she died.

Recounted via the film star’s affairs and encounters with various male figures — a film director, a recording producer, a nightclub manager — the opera explores her private musings, obsessions, elations and despair. We see behind the glamorous visage a dreamer, a pill popper, an alcoholic. But only at the very end, after she witnesses her own funeral and her spirit is liberated via incandescent song, that we realize Marilyn Forever is less about a life lived and more about how an icon is created.

In this Australian premiere, Canadian soprano Anne Grimm tantalisingly not only looks strikingly similar to the screen legend — right down to the coiffured blonde curls, famous white cocktail dress and trademark poses — but sounds similar as well, with characteristic soft, mellowed tones a songbird warble.

On the other hand, there is nothing Marilyn Forever tells us that we don’t already know about Monroe. The men around her — an empty crooner and tough guy, both sung by Richard Morris — are reduced to cardboard cutouts, giving the opera powerful clarity and focus.

But it is Bryars’ music that makes Marilyn Forever special. While the score is jazz-based and sidesteps the minimalism of his more familiar compositions, it is just as haunting. His vocal writing is languid, voluptuous and constantly evolving. His instrumental writing supplies a continual deep, sinister presence with elegiac interludes and chilling
silences that mark the trajectory to doom.

Throbbing bass drum, bass clarinet, bassoon and two double basses, among the 11 musicians of Canada’s Aventa Ensemble, contribute to a uniquely dark colour. Aventa played with wonderful fluidity, ease and naturalness.

The big, stocky figure of Bryars himself is at stage rear, plucking one of the double basses. Marring the production slightly was some under-pitching from Morris, who did not seem entirely comfortable.

But whimsical, surreal and musically absorbing, Marilyn Forever is an undeniable highlight of this year’s Adelaide Festival.