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Anna Christie

Theatre Review by James Wilson - October 14, 2018

Frank Basile, Melanie Long, and Jonathan Estabrooks
Photo by Steven Pisano

When silent film star Greta Garbo transitioned to talking movies with her performance of Anna Christie in Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize winning-play of the same name, the marketing campaigns exclaimed, "Garbo Talks!" Nearly ninety years later with a new opera version of O'Neill's play, the press might write, "Anna Christie Sings!" More accurately, that should be "Anna Christie Sings — Again!" since Bob Merrill and George Abbott had adapted the play as a 1957 Broadway musical called New Girl in Town with Gwen Verdon as its star. Still, the laudable Encompass New Opera Theatre's world premiere of Anna Christie makes a compelling case for giving O'Neill's damaged heroine a fresh and potent voice.

Joseph Masteroff, who wrote the books for She Loves Me and Cabaret (and who died just shortly before the opera went into rehearsal), has written a libretto that hews closely to O'Neill's play. Anna (Melanie Long), a former prostitute, has arrived from Minnesota to reconnect with her father, Chris Christopherson (Frank Basile), whom she has not seen since she was five years old. Christopherson, a gruff but likeable drunk, lives on a barge and offers Anna a place to live.

After a shipwreck near Provincetown, Christopherson's crew rescues a young stoker, Mat Burke (Jonathan Estabrooks), and Anna nurses him back to health. They make a volatile pair, especially when Anna reveals her past, and the relationship shows the limits of and possibilities for forgiveness and redemption.

As an opera, this version of Anna Christie is emotionally and musically thrilling, and the score by Edward Thomas is perfectly suited to the material and the characters. The music alternates between moments of aching longing, jaunty American folk rhythms, and sumptuous melodies. Many of the harmonies are indeed quite lovely, and Chris's "Old Devil Sea" motif provides a dark foreboding sentiment that enhances the piece's fatalistic mood. While the music is often lush and romantic, it does not jar with the underclass characters and circumstances. Guest conductor Mark Shapiro (who stepped in for Julian Wachner) drew fine work from the fourteen-piece orchestra.

Under Nancy Rhodes's unfussy and excellent direction, the performers are outstanding. Long, a mezzo-soprano with a superb voice, is a steely and resolute Anna. As the opera progresses, she gradually unpeels the accumulated toughness to reveal the pain and anger resulting from a childhood of sexual abuse. As Mat, baritone Estabrooks is appropriately unpredictable with a tendency toward violent eruptions. There are moments, though, in which Mat's boyishness emerges (especially when he giddily sings about marrying Anna), and Anna's love seems perfectly justified.

Joy Hermalyn, Frank Basile, and Mike Pirozzi
Photo by Steven Pisano

Perhaps best of all is Basile, whose powerful bass baritone makes Chris a force of nature. Vocally and emotionally, he conveys the attitude of an individual lashing out at the universe, and he simultaneously offers a glimpse of a remorseful man trying to repair the damage he has inflicted on his family. It is an exhilarating performance.

As Marthy, Chris's goodtime girl and Jimmy-the-Priest's saloon regular, mezzo-soprano Joy Hermalyn also deserves mention. She provides comic relief and captures the portrayal of a denizen of an O'Neill dive bar perfectly. Mike Pirozzi rounds out the cast in the role of the non-singing, but efficient bartender.

Theatrically, the opera does not disappoint. Charles Wittreich has designed a versatile set that transforms from saloon to barge deck to barge interior, and Angela Huff's costumes are gritty and period specific. Likewise, Colin Chauche's lighting is moody and atmospheric, perfectly complementing the emotional subtext. The projections by Wittreich, Lachlin Loud, and Daniel Conner are especially commendable. During the at-sea scenes the upstage wall is consumed by a shimmering, expansive sea. Highlighting the isolation, loneliness, and puniness of the characters, the effect is devastating.

At a time when sexual abuse and assault on women are part of the national conversation, Anna Christie is more relevant than ever. This operatic treatment does not minimize the issue. After nearly a century after the original play premiered, the opera reminds the audience of the importance of hearing the stories of survivors in whatever form they are told — or sung.

Anna Christie
Through October 21
Baruch Performing Arts Center, 55 Lexington Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix