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Sound Advice Reviews

Anna Christie
Reviews by Rob Lester


Broadway Records

Eugene O'Neill's famed play Anna Christie is a couple of years away from its 100th anniversary mark and with the current release of the premiere recording of a respectful and formidable musical version that has been described as an opera and "new music drama in two acts," its burdened characters are with us again. We heard them sing before, in notably cheerier fashion, when the drama was more loosely adapted by George Abbott (with music and lyrics by Bob Merrill), who directed it on Broadway as New Girl in Town with Gwen Verdon in the title role back in 1957. In this newer version, with Edward Thomas' effective music, the libretto by the late Joe Masteroff takes its cues more from the source, fairly often taking some lines verbatim from the original play (or with very slight variations), while some dialogue sections are either extended or truncated. Thomas, who is now 95, and Masteroff collaborated on musicalizing another O'Neill piece, Desire Under the Elms, which premiered in 1989.

Minor characters in the drama have been eliminated to telescope things down to the main characters of Anna, her father, her suitor, and two characters who appear only in the first scene (the bartender and the earthy female role of Marthy, quite expanded for New Girl in Town). On the recording (two discs in the physical format) is the fine four-member cast of last year's brief New York City run presented by Encompass New Opera Theatre. Melanie Long shows a supple and versatile soprano in the title role, but is ready, willing and able to rein it in for the many times she needs to be sullen, angry, bitter, or all three. As her father from whom she'd been long estranged, Frank Basile's low tones fill with gravitas and appealingly colored evocations of rue, assertiveness, and pleading in a convincing characterization. (Interesting trivia: He was the fifth and last husband of the late star Celeste Holm who played Anna in a 1952 revival of the drama.) Jonathan Estabrooks is suitably forceful as the rescued sailor. Joy Hermalyn succeeds in imprinting her soon-exiting Marthy with variety and wearied wisdom despite the limited length of the appearance. Mike Pirozzi as the bartender is the least demanding of the roles, more of a plot necessity, but he's convincing, too.

If the word "operatic" makes you proceed with trepidation, you may be somewhat resistant to what others hear as Anna Christie's assets. But there is much that is rewarding for those with open minds and open ears and those who lean toward drama. Don't be so sure. This is not "huge" singing in the "grand opera" tradition. It's often low-key, gritty, and in-your-face. Perhaps owing to a desire to be true to the glum and fretful characters, the score is not full of soaring or romantic melodies or throbbing laments. It's smaller scale, often close to naturalistic conversation more subtly enhanced by its plain and gruff vocabulary taking on shadings music can provide. Moods and moments are skillfully shaped and emphasized by small or sudden changes in tempi, variations in instrumentation within a passage, and the orchestra's impressive, almost omnipresent undercurrent of trouble and trepidation that matches the restlessness of the sea upon which much of the action takes place. A couple of orchestral interludes (more would have been wise and welcome) add to the immersive experience.

Conductor Julian Wachner and the NOVUS NY orchestra bring powerful drama to the proceedings. There is also plenty of nuance and appreciation-worthy detail, the musicalization and orchestration resulting in a deliverance of elegance that elevates the crasser and more belligerent exchanges rather than merely "sweetening" them or pouring on extra melodrama. I consider that quite the coup. Nevertheless, less would be more in the more repetitive conversations and arguments when someone continues to be stubborn in some way, like not taking "No" for an answer. Sadness, scolding, prickliness and foreboding are major elements with some hope (realistic or otherwise) occasionally encouragingly pushing its face against the storms and strife.

Perhaps the single most impressive specific example of the music bringing something to the project that only music can do is in the gratifying settings for words and instrumental bits relating to the mystique of fog at sea. The fog is described with awe, making that weather condition seem romantic and rather mystical. The music surrounding these observations increases the mood expressed in words and the actors' expressed attitudes. The magnetism and raw power of the ocean and sailing as a life are persuasively evoked, mixed in with the consequences of abandoning the people and lives left behind.

While Anna Christie may be a tough go for some, and by design almost relentlessly claustrophobic and caustic, its cause-and-effect life lessons about mistakes, mistrust, and making choices still offer power and give pause for thought. And, graced with music, the emotions elicit consideration and commiseration.

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