by Steven Pisano
Of all the great American playwrights of the last hundred years, Eugene O'Neill has plumbed deeper and darker into the classic American identity than any other. Yet somehow, his work has not attracted composers who might turn his stage creations into operas. Perhaps they've thought there was little to offer on top of O'Neill's own symphonic and often operatic writing. (Personally, I've long believed that any number of Tennessee Williams's plays would make great operas, but that's another story.)
The Encompass New Opera Theatre is now presenting the world premiere of an opera based on O'Neill's early play Anna Christie at the Baruch Performing Arts Center through this Sunday, 10/21. Anna Christie won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, but is probably best remembered in its movie version, where Greta Garbo first spoke on screen.
Composer Edward Thomas and librettist Joseph Masteroff have created a condensed version of the play, directed by Encompass's artistic director, Nancy Rhodes. Masteroff, who died just last month at the age of 98, will long be remembered in Broadway circles as the book writer on the classic shows She Loves Me and Cabaret--and for lovers of failed musicals, 70, Girls, 70. Meanwhile, Thomas is still going strong at 94!
The production is simply staged, but carries a strong punch. Veteran actor Frank Basile brings vibrant vocal power and a palpable humanity to the role of Anna's father, Chris Christopherson (a.k.a., Old Chris), which is very much the central character of the drama. In fact, when O'Neill first penned the play, he originally named it Chris Christopherson, and only changed the name after transforming Anna from a pure young woman to a prostitute looking for redemption.
Melanie Long sings the role of Anna with a beautifully silky soprano that has great texture. Her Anna is strong and proud.
Jonathan Estabrooks gives a multifaceted performance as Mat Burke, a sailor rescued from a shipwreck in a storm. At first, he is rough, dirty, and sings like a sailor, but as he and Anna begin to fall in love aboard the coal barge that Old Chris captains, his arias grow noticeably sweeter.
Thomas's score is expertly crafted and tuneful, strongly underscoring the emotional swings of the action: from tender scenes of love, to brash brawls on the barge. Credit must also be given to conductor Julian Wachner, who expertly wrings a lush, large sound from the small orchestra.