The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, was not in sedate or solemn mood when it commissioned Richard Thomas and Mark-Anthony Turnage to turn soap into opera.
The theme was the life on Anna Nicole Smith
, a small-town bimbo who had a boob job, became Playmate of the Year, married a dying billionaire and died, at 39, of an apparent drugs overdose. Thomas has previously written Jerry Springer – The Opera, a National Theatre show that pictured the Saviour in diapers and, when shown on TV, drew more complaints than any broadcast in BBC history. Turnage has written about squatters, drug death and other squalidness. The outcome was never going to be shy or pretty.
So it was no surprise to find Anna Nicole’s head eclipsing the Queen’s above the stage, or her initials projected onto the bottom corners of the curtain. Shoals of C-list celebrities, every TV presenter you cannot name, were imported for the opening night and the atmosphere in the great auditorium was closer to Big Brother than Royal Opera House.
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.
All good, dirty fun. Turnage, the most gifted British composer of his generation, does not have much to do in the first act except maintain a pounding rhythm. In the second, he writes some marvellous elegiac stretches for the orchestra, summoning our sympathy for the heroine’s decline, but character is drawn so thin and irony laid on so thick that good music goes to waste. I did not see a wet eye in the house.
Anna Nicole is bumptiously played by the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek who is hardly off-stage for a minute and dies, as the heroine lived, in a mob of camera lenses. Gerald Finley is the sleazebag lawyer Stern (who has recently been sprung on appeal and cannot therefore be a sleazebag in the eyes of the law). Ala Oke is tremor-perfect as the octogenarian billionaire, while Susan Bickley sings just a tad too beautifully as the heroine’s grim mother. Richard Jones directs with his usual penchant for shlock and shell-suits and Antonio Pappano had little more to do in the put than keep beating. Emotion was nowhere to be felt.
This was, nevertheless, a great night at the opera and when we emerged into a lobby jammed with television crews demanding our opinion it felt as if life had overwhelmed art. We fled into the night, pondering the purpose of it all.
And that’s where the health warning kicks in. Anna Nicole the opera makes a mockery of all it touches and takes nothing seriously, except one persistent theme. The opera is relentlessly, mindlessly anti-American, spouting all the common Euro cliches about the vapidity of American life. It may pretend to be anti-ugly American, but the prejudice runs right through its arteries. ‘I’m going to rape that American dream,’ is one of its slogans. ‘America, you dirty whore/I gave you everything, you wanted more,’ is the heroine’s swansong.
So that’s all right, then. It enables us Brits to leave the opera house feeling that tiny bit superior to what we had just seen. This will not play well in Poughkeepsie. I doubt it will reach New York. What begins as a romp turns into a rant. Like all rants, eventually it palls.
At the end, Anna Nicole is exactly where she wanted to be: right in your face. The opera is, quite literally, sensational. It is an overnight hit that, like its heroine, will soon fade to blank.
photo: Laurie Lewis/Lebrecht Music & Arts