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Marilyn Forever - a chamber opera


Marilyn Monroe died an enigma in 1962 and this dreamy, drifting chamber opera does little to part the shroud of mystery.

Performed in the orchestral studio attached to the ABC headquarters at Collinswood, the simple set gives the immediate impression of a Hollywood sound stage.

The Aventa Ensemble – a small chamber orchestra – performs discreetly in the shadows, while a jazz trio featuring the opera’s composer (and Adelaide Festival composer-in-residence) Gavin Bryars, on double bass, is on-stage.

Dutch soprano Anne Grimm takes the lead role, looking the part with distinctive platinum blonde hair and a white dress reminiscent of Marilyn’s famous outfit in The Seven Year Itch.

She has a fine and supple operatic voice, making no attempt to impersonate Marilyn’s voice or physicality.

Baritone Richard Morris plays the men in Marilyn’s life – a crooner, the playwright Arthur Miller and one or two ambiguous (to me) others. A chorus of two – bass Nicholas Cannon and tenor Adam Goodburn – add to the sense of Marilyn being isolated in a world of men.

The libretto – by Canadian writer Marilyn Bowering, who has published a series of poems about Monroe – seems to be a series of musings by Marilyn on her internal world, which is punctured periodically by the intrusion of men.

It was difficult to pick up the words at times, but the libretto traversed Marilyn’s relationships, career and occasional darker reflections on her feelings about her famous physicality.

The music is a restrained but very successful melding of styles including jazz, angular modern harmonies and passages reminiscent of lush 1950s film scores and American standards.

The musical performances – particularly Grimm and the two ensembles – are outstanding. Morris is more comfortable with an operatic style, struggling at times with switching voices along with the characters (particularly the crooner).

At about 90 minutes, the piece doesn’t outstay its welcome. Like the elusive idea of the real Marilyn, however, the audience is left with broad-brush impressions rather than a sense of having experienced something revelatory.

Marilyn Forever finished its short run over the weekend, but there are other opportunities to hear Bryars’ very fine compositions and playing, including performances of his ensemble on Tuesday and Wednesday, and orchestral works with the Adelaide Symphony on Thursday.

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