I’m putting out there a few of my thoughts after seeing the opera this evening, feel free to comment and share your views on it.
Why I went
When I booked my tickets back in October 2010 I did on the strength of my fantastic experience with Niobe Regina di Tebe which was brilliant and totally out of the usual fare at Covent Garden. A new commission was carrying the promise of something interesting and a possibility to see a work outside the usual canonical programming choices. Another important motivation was the cast, having Eva-Maria Westbroek and Gerald Finley committing themselves to the project left very little doubt in my mind that it would be worthwhile.
Let’s fast forward a few months and March 1st arrives and my turn has come! Today was the fifth performance of the work and my chance to experience it. Read a number of reviews in the last week and a half since the premiere and had seen far too many production shots to have a good idea what the opera was like!
The music writing
The friend that accompanied me found it accomplished but cold and superficial. Which got us talking on what avenue Turnage took with Anna Nicole. He went for a (well reported by this stage) bluesy, US jazz sound with echoes of Stravinsky in his US retirement. In many ways that could be seen as a safe choice verging on the superficial route. In my mind he could have gone a much more melodramatic route and give us a Traviata for the 21st century and I’m glad he didn’t do that. The writing is fairly small-scale in most passages with more focused crescendi around pivotal points in the plot. It allows the singing to shine through and in my mind the two absolute stars with the best material were Anna Nicole (Eva-Maria Westbroek) and old man Marshall (Alan Oke). They were given enough interaction with other characters and they both managed to create warm stage personas that could communicate to the audience the heart of the story.
I thought it was very effective and actually it felt less glitzy than the publicity shots, which was a very positive surprise. One major failure was the way they portrayed Wal-Mart (as the archetypal evil empire…all very original, I know), with the same old faceless workers trying to make ends meet with the minimum wage. The supposed ironic use of the uniform to show their unhappiness just felt too cliché and surely needed a lighter hand…maybe Richard Jones got carried away by the really didactic bit of libretto that accompanied the scene?
Westbroek, gave us an Anna Nicole that is playful, vulnerable, ignorant, dependant, questioning, loving, fun, compassionate. She had also captured some of Smith’s physical expressions and body characteristics that gave her a theatrical completeness. The way she carried herself in the Larry King interview scene was masterful, she was a lovable rogue, at once a junkie and at the same time a girl with dreams and an acute love of dogs *giggle*. All very Anna Nicole and surely a great shorthand for Smith’s public persona. The way she was personified I felt compassion and even protective of her and never thought she was becoming a monstrous caricature, which in my eyes is a major achievement.
The od(bv)ious elephant in the room
The Libretto, Richard Thomas came up with a million and one descriptions of breasts which it momentarily amused but quickly seemed overwrought and silly. Another major misstep were the ariettas written for Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mother (Susan Bickley), a lot of the reviews I have read praise her as the moral centre to this tale of celebrity excess. I have to disagree, most of the lines she was given were just preachy and trite. Especially at the close of Act One her description of the relationship of men and women was going to such an extreme to make it plain show-offish gibberish, was Thomas just trying too hard to shock with adding cum bucket in the libretto? It did not shock me, it just made me question his motives and the more I think the less I trust his heart, with this character, was in the right place. Also another mention that was really pointless and just there for effect was in Finlay’s “Hollywood” moment in the Second Act where he mentions her lesbian PA and how Anna Nicole was riding her…it just seemed such an easy way to a gag that made it pointless and with an unwelcome hint of misogyny. Another issue for me was in the,otherwise, truly effective finale when he made Anna Nicole utter America you whore, which was just a horribly predictable and cliché response to the shuttering of the American dream. For me it ruined a couple of minutes of her monologue before the end which was a true shame, as Eva-Maria was truly remarkable as she is dying in a maelstrom of cameras recording her last moments.
Anna Nicole may not be revolutionary theatrically or musically but is an interesting addition to the annals of contemporary opera. It was thrilling to watch, despite it’s -mainly- textual failings. The story is coming through loud and clear and the space for character development is there and all it needs is a really good cast to sympathise with the material and bring it to life. The Royal Opera has indeed endowed it’s first outing with a wonderful cast that is both inspirational and starry. For me the greatest achievement of the night was Eva-Maria giving a heart-felt performance with true empathy and understanding. I really hope that we will see her more and more in London in the coming years as she is a truly interesting singer with a great voice and magnetic presence. Of course the big overall question is how much will the work suffer in the hands of a less charismatic lead? I do think a less engaging soprano will expose the numerous shortcomings of the libretto. Let’s hope that if the production is sold to another company or when it returns to the Royal Opera they will iron out some of the clunky dialogue and crass references that have no place in it and do actually jar with the music.