“The sad but true story of Anna Nicole Smith, a two-bit, surgically enhanced American stripper, nude model and C-list celebrity who married an 89-year-old billionaire and ended up, at the age of 39, dead from an overdose of prescription drugs in a lonely hotel room.”
Thus Rupert Christiansen in The Telegraph sums up the new opera “Anna Nicole” by composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard (Jerry Springer: the Opera) Thomas. Elaine Padmore, director of opera at the Royal Opera House, said Smith’s story was “an opera for our times”. Norman Lebrecht indicates the tone:
Anna Nicole is an opera of two halves, the first hour hubris, the second nemesis. Thomas scatterguns us with boob jokes and nudge-winks. ‘That’s the metaphor/we’re going for,’ he quips in one of the early scenes, adding that this is ‘an absurdist story of woe.’ Post-modern irony has much to answer for. ‘I wanna blow you all…’ declares Anna Nicole, ‘… a kiss.’ There is an aria to small breasts and another to Jimmy Choos.
Critics are very much divided as to its overall success. Anne Midgette for The Washington Post thought it failed:
But alas, as soon as the actual story began, the opera fell like a failed souffle. By deliberately opting for a TV-biopic approach, it became the latest entry in the lists of failed biographical operas: It presented such events like items on a checklist, acted out by two-dimensional characters that never – despite a fine cast – came to life.
Anthony Tommasini for The New York Times disagreed:
It proved a weirdly inspired work, an engrossing, outrageous, entertaining and, ultimately, deeply moving new opera. This was an improbable triumph for Covent Garden.
Talk about divided! Here are two views of Thomas’ libretto. Igor Toronyi-Lalic for The Arts Desk didn’t like it at all:
Thomas’s libretto buckled under the pressure to be soulful and give wider meaning to the plethora of tragic events to befall Anna Nicole and her family that we rattle through soap-style. A designated conscience of the opera, Anna Nicole’s mother, Virgie (strongly sung by Susan Bickley), offers up insights like “shit happens, then you die”. The increasing poverty of the libretto was doubly embarrassing as the second half was where Mark-Anthony Turnage’s music began to achieve some genuine emotional power.
Whereas The Independent’s Jessica Duchen loved it:
Richard Thomas’s libretto would carry the day even if the score weren’t as terrific as it is: varied, acidic, lyrical and occasionally heartbreaking. The death of Anna’s son, Daniel (Dominic Rowntree), who sings only to utter the names of all the drugs he’s been stuffed with, is suitably devastating; Anna’s lament harkens more than a little to Purcell’s Dido.
But almost all are in agreement about the music:
What makes this opera so exciting, however, is that Turnage seems to have found precisely the right musical idiom for such a drama – an Americana, brashly orchestrated and violently propulsive which embraces jazz, blues, musical comedy, and lounge smooch so ingeniously and responsively as to transcend mere pastiche. – Rupert Christiansen
Of course the operatic repertoire is full of doomed good-time girls who mix with the wrong blokes. But most die to a sublime soundtrack of Verdi or Puccini. I hope the world warms as much to Turnage’s score, superbly conducted by Antonio Pappano. It’s jazzy, bitter-sweet, fizzing, moody and often touchingly tender. Five more performances, all sold out. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this sardonic fable for our times finds a second life on screen or in the West End. – Richard Morrison for The Times
Maybe it is my slant on things, but Mr. Turnage’s music is the primary reason that so much seemed so right in “Anna Nicole.” There are flashes of Weill in the clattering, cabaret-like scenes when the reporters, wielding microphones, mutter like a Greek chorus; and jazzy sneering brass writing in the scene with the dancers at the “gentleman’s club” in Houston. At times Mr. Turnage’s connection to the British modernist school of complex composers like Harrison Birtwistle comes through. The more reflective passages often take the surprising form of beguiling, varied waltzes. – Anthony Tommasini
Tommasini also had praise for the production team:
The conductor Antonio Pappano, the music director of Covent Garden, who shares a passion for jazz with Mr. Turnage, drew an electric, blazing yet wondrously subtle performance from the orchestra. And the director Richard Jones has devised a dazzling, humorous yet humane production, with sets by Miriam Buether that come alive with Day-Glo colors and neon lights, and playfully realistic costumes by Nicky Gillibrand.
As did Jessica Duchen, who also loved the singers:
It’s a tremendous show, fast-paced, spare and concentrated, tagged with references such as Marshall (a passionate, warm-voiced Alan Oke) as an armchair deus ex machina, and replete with layers of laughter and lighting of imagination and colourful wonders – accolades to Mimi Jordan Sherin and D M Wood for this last. The chorus relishes its wordy, busy brilliance; the soloists give their all, and if Westbroek could perhaps be even more extreme in her characterisation then perhaps she will grow into that as the run proceeds. It’s a peach of a role, and must be a tad scary to perform for the first time.
Rupert Christiansen agreed:
In the title role, Eva-Maria Westbroek, singing with inexhaustible energy, gives a big-hearted, full-throttle performance which never strikes a false note of sentimentality. A large and uniformly excellent supporting cast is strongly led by Alan Oke as the pathetically infatuated billionaire Anna Nicole marries, Gerald Finley as her Svengaliesque lawyer and Susan Bickley as her embittered bitch of a mother.
A masterpiece? I don’t know about that: Anna Nicole’s impact is so immediate that there’s no space to consider if it will bear repeated hearings. But meanwhile, before posterity makes its judgement, I’ll eat my six-gallon hat if it’s not a stonking great hit.
Photo: Alistair Muir
UPDATE: 19 February
A couple of important reviews are out, but not goodies (unless for you, like Mike Figgis, the baddies are goodies!)
Andrew Clark in the Financial Times:
What a tragedy. What a waste. Not the life of Anna Nicole Smith, stupid – though the American bimbo who died of a drug overdose in 2007, aged 39, epitomised both. No, I mean the new Mark-Anthony Turnage “opera” about her and the celebrity culture she represented. “Anna Nicole” is not an opera. It’s a musical-theatrical hybrid, so simplistic in its construction and vocal scoring, so cheap in its pseudo-sexual thrills and narcotic spills, that it wastes an opera house’s resources. A tragedy indeed: music director Antonio Pappano, dramatic soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek and a large, talented ensemble have little to show for their efforts, but that’s not the point. The purpose of the venture is to show that Covent Garden is somehow in sympathy with contemporary life, rather than an elite-serving museum.
And Mark Swed for the Los Angeles Times:
Turnage’s score has its fine patches. He comfortably slips between jazz, pop and pleasingly textured instrumental riffs. Words are set to be understood. An opening chorus reminded me of the style of Leonard Bernstein’s musical/opera hybrid “Trouble in Tahiti.”
For a party scene, a pop music band (Peter Erskine, John Paul Jones and John Parricelli) fits right in for an cameo appearance. But it was not until a beguiling orchestral interlude in the second act, and too late, that “Anna” finally seemed worth taking seriously.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.