Anna Nicole

Westbroek, Bickley, Finley, Oke, ROH/Pappano

Covent Garden, 18 February 2011 4.5 stars

by Alastair Muir

Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas' long-awaited opera on the life of former Playmate of the Year Anna Nicole Smith, Anna Nicole, turns out to have been well worth the wait. By turns riotous and sorrowful, farcical and principled, the opera set Covent Garden ablaze this evening, drawing gasps, laughter, and stunned smiles in the first half, before moving to a pathos-filled, even profound, denouement.

Smith's status as a villainous and gold-digging Cinderella whose short, media-fuelled life ended in the bleakest of tragedies with the death of first her son and then herself from a cocktail of prescription drugs makes her an ideal candidate for opera. Put her alongside Lucrezia, Poppea, Semele, and Medea in the gallery of operatic femme fatales. The contemporary nature of her life - almost every one of Smith’s adult experiences, including the birth of her second child and the protracted saga of the court case in which she contested her dead second husband's fortune with his blood family, was and is inseparable from its mediatisation - makes this opera a new proposition entirely, however, one that must invoke celebrity culture, postmodern aesthetics, capitalism, feminism, and Situationist spectacle (America, in other words) if it is to do anything like justice to its subject.

Librettist and composer are well-matched to such a task here, past experience placing them in a strong position to deal with the subject's many complex requirements. Turnage's piecemeal style, for one, has always sat better for me in dramatic as opposed to concert works. On the stage, Turnage's characteristically postmodern stylistic mosaic, where jazz and blues but also rock and pop and other vernacular modes of expression inform and even form the material, provides a flowing bed in which the drama can bloom. The music of Anna Nicole indeed provides just such a foundation, its assortment of referents - from brassy Broadway in the lapdance club, to US roots and country in the early scenes for the introduction of Smith's first husband, to Michel Legrand-esque sweeping and jazzy orchestral romanticism at various points, to a more cutting and hard-bitten, though tonally and rhythmically stable, modern orchestral style at others - conveying different characters or shifting emotional states in simple and effective topical modulations. Tony Pappano, orchestra, and all star band (including Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones on bass) negotiate these modulations with a ferocious intensity and a dexterous pliability that serves the material very well indeed.

Turnage, then, is well suited to musically articulating the subject of Anna Nicole Smith's very American life. Librettist Richard Thomas is if anything even more qualified in this respect than Turnage. Though widely active across TV, radio, and the stage, Thomas is known primarily for the creation, composition, and co-writing of Jerry Springer: The Opera, a sardonic and mischievous musical with a more than passing thematic relationship to the subject of Anna Nicole.

by Alastair MuirAs with Springer, Thomas here proves both caustic and corrective. Without ever shying away from the lurid nature of the subject - credit should go to the ever alert and revealing direction of Richard Jones in that regard, and the dazzling clothes of the costume designer Nicky Gillibrand likewise - Thomas maintains integrity throughout. He injects the opera with endless supplies of barbed witticisms, plays on words, hilarious lists of synonyms and types (the accusatory list for Gerald Finley's unyielding, manipulative, and stout lawyer Stern that mentions Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds in an intertextual nod to Dr. Atomic was particularly funny), alongside feckless curse words, scathing insults, and acerbic observations.

Crucially, Thomas and Turnage modulate this postmodern distancing, however, this revelling in bathos, into something of emotional and philosophical note towards the close. Throughout the opera Smith’s mother, played here by an affecting and heartbroken, though firm, Susan Bickley, insists on something beyond the glare of the cameras, on a separate perspective that might stand in for authorial redemption, a sort of redemption that lifts the show above the simple finger-wagging spectacle that it might have become in lesser hands. By the end, as I mention below, the full tragedy of the situation saturates every sinew of the work. Eva-Maria Westbroek, in the titular role, necessarily stays away from the explicit articulation of these tensions, instead embodying all the tragedy of her age in a performance of serious physical, musical and emotional depth, a performance that carries the heart of the opera throughout its many heinous travails.

Anna Nicole handles the moral question very well, in fact. It does not shy away from the many villainies in the story, from the lasciviousness and plain old creepiness (though this latter aspect could have been played up a tad more) of Smith's second husband (an hilarious though perhaps too vocally forthright Alan Oke), to Smith's own greed and complacency, to Stern's overweening corruption, but it rarely seeks to pass judgement on these characters individually, at least not to an excessive degree. It reflects instead the systemic framework that facilitated their behaviour, even underlining our place within the media's glare in a memorable scene in front of the curtain in the second act, where the lights are turned up and the audience become press at Stern and Smith’s press conference-cum-reality show.

In moments such as this one, and in others, such as the funny but oddly poignant scene in the cosmetic surgeon's office, Anna Nicole shows us very vividly the intensity of the media glare (physically present here with the flanks of reporters and mime person-cameras that are always lurking) and the horrifying pressure that women in late twentieth century Western society were under. Always alive to complexity and complicity, women's suppression is seen at one point in terms of 'the burka in the East, the thong in the West', whilst men and women are described in fairly ruthless terms throughout. America, ultimately, is aligned with Smith herself, as a 'filthy whore' (from the outside perspective) that simply wanted too much.

The opera unravels the many cultural tentacles of the story with something of a humble lesson, delivered at the end by Bickley's Virgie, in which we are instructed, simply, to pity those in the glare, and to keep our loved ones close.

Anna Nicole is funny, cruel, and cutting, but it also has a heart, and that heart is very much in the right place.

By Stephen Graham

Photos by Alastair Muir.

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