Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Anna Nicole @ Royal Opera House, London

Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House (Photo: Marc Eskenazi)

The scandalous life of Anna Nicole Smith was a gift for the outr composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and his equally outrageous librettist Richard Thomas.

Superficially speaking this opera has a lot in common with brash, brassy musicals tasteless kitsch, a drum kit in the orchestra pit and cheap American accents in the chorus but emotionally it drives forward with easily the same force of La Traviata or La Boheme. The difference is that (as the chorus point out several times) this actually happened. In fact, Anna Nicoles tragic tale has more depth than either Violettas or Mimis since she crawls out of a commonplace tragedy only to dump herself into one of monstrous proportions.

The libretto has to match these extremes (without laying it on too thick) and Richard Thomas succeeds where many would have failed eliciting laughter from one-liners as well as delivering overall shape to Anna Nicoles character. The real test is obviously the music. How does a composer represent the commercial consumer culture of Americana while still staying true to his own musical language? Turnages music was alive and exciting, and managed to be full of catchy melody as well as infectious rhythm but it was still Turnage. Hardly a burning furnace of avant-gardisms, this music is extreme in no way other than its aptness and its beauty Turnage saw fit to rein in some of his rougher edges to suit the piece and its context.

Director Richard Jones had the lavish, outlandish world of glitz and trash to convey, and he certainly did that but there were some surprises, too, with amazing performances from the suite of three jaw-dropping dancers; the worlds largest Stannah Stairlift (for Annas 2nd husband) and an array of Disneyesque figurines enlarged to gigantic proportions. The acting, movement and interplay of characters were solid throughout, the one jarring omission (which would surely have ramped up the drama?) being when Anna embraced her dead son at her home, rather than in the hospital room that she, too was being treated in according to the real story.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was magnetic from the hapless, gum-smacking Anna of Scene I, to the drug-addled and vulnerable Anna by the end of the opera, combining reckless naivet with plaintive gawkiness.

Alan Oke was disturbingly realistic as Annas 80 year-old husband J. Howard Marshall II, careering around in a wheelchair with a half-full colostomy bag attached and in full view. His shaky hand was in keeping with his dappled head and higher-than-high elasticated waistband.

As her live-in lawyer/lover Gerald Finley was unshakeably smooth and irresistibly evil. His drive as a character was equalled by the force of his delivery, and his physically commanding presence was a perfect contrast to J. Howard Marshall II.

At its best the music was as sublime as Stravinskys Orpheus, but with frequent nods to American culture such as hoe-downs and negro spirituals, to gripping effect. Antonio Pappano was on fire, whipping the ROH orchestra into precision, and the supporting cast was uniformly superb. Overall a tender, sorrowful tragedy, told with humour and the best of bad taste.

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