Eugene O’Neill’s plays inherently have so much music in them—those grandiose over-the-top scenas and four-page aria-like speeches—but that hasn’t stopped composers, during the last 80 years, from turning them into operas—and why should it? The latest O’Neill-inspired entry into the operatic repertory is “Anna Christie,” by nonagenarian composer Edward Thomas and librettist Joseph Masteroff, who also wrote an opera based on O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms.” “Anna Christie” is being treated to a 12-performance world premiere run, courtesy of Encompass New Opera Theatre, performing at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. The initial presentation of this compelling new neo-Romantic, American verismo opera, which continues through October 21, is dedicated to Masteroff’s memory. “Anna Christie” opened on October 4 and I heard the fifth performance, on October 11.
Greta Garbo’s vivid film portrayal of Anna Christie still looms large, so, in striving to put her individual stamp on the role, lyric soprano Melanie Long, as the 20-year-old Anna, whom life has not treated kindly, has her work cut out for her. Bass Frank Basile plays Anna’s father, rugged seaman Chris Christopherson. Lyric baritone Jonathan Estabrooks is Mat Burke, the hunky shipwrecked sailor, who winds up on Christopherson’s coal barge, half drowned, but not too weak to make a pass at Anna. Versatile mezzo-soprano Joy Hermalyn, with credits from opera to Gilbert and Sullivan to Broadway, is the earthy Marthy Owen, who, in her only scene, delivers a wry lament when Chris, awaiting the arrival of the child he hasn’t seen since she was five, asks his lady love to leave. Mike Pirozzi completes the cast in the speaking part of Larry, the bartender. Conductor Julian Wachner paces the singers and the 14-member instrumental ensemble. Nancy Rhodes is the director and producer. Sets are by Charles Wittreich, costumes by Angela Huff, projections by Wittreich, Lachlin Loud, and Daniel Conner, and lighting by Colin Chauche. In this most intimate space, with the sea very much with us, the intense confrontations, the duets and the trio, more than the solos, especially stand out. Spoiler alert: a more or less tell-all account follows.
After her lyrical, world-weary introduction, Long’s Anna has a music-theatre-style duet with Hermalyn’s Marthy, their sparring informed by knowledge that they’ve garnered in the life. Anna rhapsodizes about the cleansing fog and sea, while Basile’s sonorous Chris tells her about their seafaring ancestors and the destructive “old devil sea,” which haunts him. Giving us graphic descriptions of his life at sea and the shipwreck he survived, Estabrooks’ Mat makes his aggressive play for Anna and she successfully struggles with him, their scuffle literally rocking the set, but they conclude with a duet as romantic as the one in Act One of “La Bohème.”
In Act Two, Anna angrily limns the difficult life with her country cousins that Chris condemned her to with his absence, even after her mother’s death, but when she airs the dream, which she still cherishes, of marrying Mat, Chris unleashes his full regret at having brought her out to sea with him. Mat swaggers in and, in a cocky march with an Irish lilt, announces his determination to marry Anna. Chris darkly voices his opposition, and the two men roar at one another. When each tries to assert control over Anna, she puts them in their places and, declining Mat’s proposal, frankly discloses her past as a sex worker. Mat hypocritically condemns her and runs off. In the final scene, Anna sings a sad waltz, as she muses about Mat, and she and Chris have a tender, if fraught, reconciliation duet. Mat returns and he and Anna wistfully, earnestly, manage to make peace with themselves and with each other. It’s hard to picture her, though, as the happy homemaker, long awaiting their return from the sea, that her father and her intended would have her become.
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