Cher Public

I am a camera

I would never have imagined that the story of Anna Nicole Smith could be today’s entry in a long line of opera’s “fallen women”—pop culture’s reinvention of Violetta, Manon Lescaut, and Lulu.  But that is indeed what composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas have created in Anna Nicole, commissioned by England’s Royal Opera House and premiered in February 2011.  Opus Arte has released a DVD of the February 26 performance that manages to be funny and moving while being as garish, noisy, and vulgar as its subject. 

Director Richard Jones and his excellent design team of Miriam Buether (sets), Nicky Gillibrand (costumes), and Mimi Jordan Sherin and D. M. Wood (lighting) have surrounded the world of Anna Nicole with bright and shiny colors, white and pink clothes and lights, and it all works together beautifully.  It’s almost as Smith might have designed it herself.  It is a tribute to these designers that “90’s tasteless” becomes palatable and serves the story so well.

Smith’s story is told in a series of brief scenes, beginning with her exceedingly humble beginnings in Mexia, Texas where she marries her boss at the local chicken joint.  From this brief union comes the birth of her son, Daniel, who figures prominently throughout the opera.  In the first act, we quickly move with Anna to Houston where, stuck in a deadend WalMart job, she discovers the “gentlemen’s club” pole-dancing scene.  She also acquires huge breast implants and suddenly discovers herself the most popular dancer in the place.  Soon, she has attracted the attention of the very rich and very old oilman J. Howard Marshall II.

The first act ends with their improbable wedding.  There is a very light touch to the music and the direction in this first act.  It frequently veers a bit too far toward the cartoonish stereotypes in all the characters and situations, and the libretto tends toward the cheap laugh. Anna Nicole’s first lines are an example: “I want to blow you all… (laugh), blow you all… (laugh)… a kiss.”  The production keeps reminding us that Smith’s life was one of operatically wretched excess, so many of the production’s excesses work in that context.  And so does Turnage’s music, full of jazzy and pop-influenced tunes, cacophonous and lyrical by turns.

The second act is the musical and dramatic glory of Anna Nicole.   After the death of Marshall, when Anna falls under the influence of lawyer Howard Stern and also falls apart, the characters deepen and the story takes an ugly turn with the exploitation of the drug-addled Anna by the media and Stern.  Also making its first appearance early in Act Two is a brilliant production element: black-clad dancers with television cameras for heads, omnipresent in every scene and moving lithely in the splendid choreography of Aletta Collins.

While this may seem an unsubtle way of showing how Anna Nicole’s life became all about being on camera, it works beautifully, especially when Stern convinces Anna to televise the birth of her daughter as a pay-per-view event.  Nothing subtle about that!  And as Anna stumbles toward her inevitable end, there are only the cameras present to zip her into her body bag.

In this second act we also have the most hauntingly beautiful melody in the piece—the only thing that tenor Dominic Rountree (Daniel) sings in the entire evening.  Zipped into his body bag after dying of an overdose in his mother’s bed, he simply and sweetly sings, and the lyrics are simply a list of the dozens of drugs he has taken.  It is a particularly haunting touch that the last drug he names is “propofol.”

This production is blessed with remarkably fine performances in all of the major roles.  Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek is simply perfect in the title role.  Vocally, she manages the numerous quick stylistic changes in Turnage’s score with aplomb, and has power and beauty to spare in the more dramatic passages; she also manages the intimate moments with softness and nuance.  Westbroek acts the role very convincingly as well, has excellent comic timing, and never makes the mistake of judging her character.  She “channels” Anna Nicole superbly.

Smith’s mother Virgie, who tries to be the moral compass of her daughter’s life, is brought to vivid life by Susan BickleyAlan Oke does excellent work as the aged J. Howard Marshall, managing to express the character’s greed and vulgar lust without ever sliding into caricature.  And Gerald Finley gives a subtle, gradually evolving performance as the lawyer Stern, singing with clarity (and remarkable English diction) and beauty.  The singing of the many smaller roles is an up-and-down affair, but there is fine work from Peter Hoare as an avuncular Larry King and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as a very horny Trucker out of his depth in the “gentlemen’s club.”

Antonio Pappano surprised me with his absolute mastery of this difficult and idiomatic contemporary score, and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House plays with enthusiasm and brilliance.  The excitement of creating a new work is palpable in this performance.  The Royal Opera Chorus is dressed in blue television correspondent suits (both men and women) and they sing very well while playing the intrusive, constant media presence in Anna Nicole’s life.

I had numerous quibbles with the libretto.  While it was often witty and sharply satiric, there were numerous rhymes that seemed stretched: “Party like you’re bending time/ Party like primeval slime.”  How does primeval slime party?  Then there’s the moment when the Marshall family is berating Anna: “Back to your sewer…You gold-digging ‘hooer’.”  The music, too, is occasionally so loud and noisy as to be annoying, but for the most part, Turnage’s inventive and clever score delivers the goods.

Anna Nicole is a genuinely powerful statement about the destructive nature of our current celebrity culture.  Smith herself is a perfect example of a celebrity who used the media to serve her desperate ambition to be famous, then was used and chewed up by that very same media and her venal hangers-on.  Even at her most vulgar and trashy, there was always a sweet underlying naivete about Anna Nicole Smith.  The exploitation of that naïveté is her tragedy.  Anna Nicole and particularly the brilliant Westbroek make that tragedy abundantly clear.

  • lorenzo.venezia

    Wow, Actfive, thank you for the cogent review; I was hoping it would be like this, and look forward to seeing it.

    • IdiaLegray

      Thanks for the review. I loved it at the ROH and am looking forward to seeing the dvd.

  • brooklynpunk

    Great write-up..!…it sure makes me want to see it,myself..!

  • Will

    A third voice to say what a vivid, revealing and great review this is. I am hoping this production comes to New York — it seems just the sort of thing Mr. Gelb likes, and the leading lady is now established at the MET — but should that not happen I will have no hesitation acquiring this DVD.

  • armerjacquino

    I was less of a fan of the opera than actfive- I wonder if it’s more compelling on DVD?- but let me also say how much I enjoyed this review.

    • bersi

      I agree with you. While I enjoyed the review, the parts of the opera that I have seen on youtube left me uninspired. A friend of mine told me that Westbroek has a wobble but I was not aware of it when I saw her in Die Walkure. Anyone else can detect a wobble?

      • armerjacquino

        Not in Anna Nicole or Tabarro.

        • MontyNostry

          Not a wobble, but in Tabarro I thought there was more than a hint of a rather comprimario-like looseness in the voice. She’s good, and a game performer, but it’s not what I’d call a great instrument.

          • Batty Masetto

            Several of us in the Trittico chat noticed a widening of the tone, at least.

          • phoenix

            Re: TABARRO — I found Westbroek’s ‘widening of tone’ (breadth of volume) on target for both dramatic emphasis & audial excitement.

          • bersi

            With due respect, I disagree with the assessment that she has a comprimario-like voice. I hear her voice as being rather large and very exciting and I only hear hints of the wobble when I am listening to recordings or broadcasts…never when I hear her live. I thought maybe hers is a large voice that does not record well…but of course I don’t know for sure.

          • The top is going. Sad but true. Heard it on the Salzburg Elektra and was saddened. A great performer IMO. Two roles should be banned, forever : Katerina Izmailova and, incidentally, Renata (Prokofiev). They wreck voices.

          • Rob V.

            I wouldn’t say it isn’t a great instrument. In fact, her voice teacher, James McCray, thinks the voice is spectacular and very special. Kind of like Tebaldi’s in the past. It was pointed out that the anatonomy of her vocal chords is a bit special, which gives her some extra possibilities. But the fact of the matter is she wasn’t feeling well in the Met Walkure, took some time off after that and had surgery. Nobody knows why. She does have a very large voice and maybe she should be more precise/selective in taking on roles.

  • papopera

    Degrading for the Royal Opera House. Hope Her Majesty was not present.

    • Rob V.

      I believe Her Majesty was present. It was Anna Nicole herself. As I understand, the queen’s initials got replaced by Anna’s. But I don’t agree with your assessment. I thought it was uplifting for the Royal Opera House. And Eva-Maria is fantastic, by the way.

  • Belfagor

    Mmmmm hate to be the spectre at the feast, but, for me, this review is much too kind. One thing is certain to me: this opera can never be done in the US -- it is much too condescending and superior to American trash culture, it wallows in it and doesn’t understand, analyse or offer insights into it. I think a US audience would be insulted by this piece, and rightly so, as it misses the target while laughing at it.

    As for difficult music, I thought it sounded very Turnage-lite -- anonymous with not good enough tunes -- he is actually one of the few contemporary composers who has a readily identifiable voice, and I don’t hear much of it here.

    And don’t get me started on the libretto -- terrible story-telling, not much narrative tension, schoolboyish jokes, witless, not witty.

    Production and performances are in general, great, sure, but the staging is so over the top one suspects a lack of confidence in the material by the team…….

    • MontyNostry

      If it’s not trashy-themed stuff to make the ROH think it’s being relevant with new opera and get a mention in the tabloids, it’s arcane Birtwistle and minotaurs.

    • ianw2

      Wasn’t there a legal issue preventing the production being exported to the US? I seem to recall something of that sort about two years ago- one of the big US companies (San Fran?) had been sniffing around but eventually passed due to legal advice.

      I’ve only seen the opera on TV. I found it, oddly, too cynical and found the framing device of the mute television reporter to be as hackneyed as updating Shakespeare to an unspecified fascist era (another bugbear of mine).

      I think Midgette (argh! the lady of the hour!) summarised it in her review best, that all the nudging and postmodern winking got in the way of presenting Anna as someone we should actually care about, which becomes all the more acute since we already know the ending.

      • armerjacquino

        That was pretty much what I thought, too:

        ‘But, crucially, we already know the story and we already know its implications. Nobody left the ROH tonight thinking ‘Good God, I had no idea women were objectified in our society!’ or ‘Wow, being famous for being famous sure has a potential downside!’ and it was the opera’s lack of anything new or insightful to say about the sad, inevitable decline of its heroine which was its major disappointment. The only thing which could have saved the story from its familiarity would have been a hefty emotional kick- after all, we know what’s going to happen to Gilda and Mimi, too- but the libretto opts for cool detachment from the start, never a good mood to set if you’re looking for withers to be wrung. No decision has been made as to whether the heroine is amoral or admirable, whether we’re supposed to root for her or judge her. There’s not even any real ambiguity about her portrayal- just some fairly brutal, unearned gear changes between ‘isn’t she empty?’ and ‘isn’t she tragic?’.’

  • phoenix

    I haven’t seen it, so I don’t really know.
    — Even though I found the real-life Anna Nicole to be as dull as Oprah Winfrey (I believe there are already a couple of operas loosely based on Oprah), I didn’t recognize Anna Nicole as trash at all. She came from a large working-class family (that actually worked), but of course in UK that may be an indication of trash, I’m not sure.
    — Two Brits got up an opera about American trash! Wow! Couldn’t they find something closer to their own homebase in UK? Or is there no more trash left in the homeland anymore?
    — Within the narrow limits of my own irrational existence, I have found that trash exists only in the indignancy of the beholder.

    • Belfagor

      well, lets replace the pejorative term ‘trash TV’ with ‘reality TV’: the piece did seem to me to be very much two Brits venturing into territory they had no background in -- a kind of ‘oo, let’s go slumming’ mentality, without having the kind of insights or cultural nuance to tell the story as a real tragedy, or dissect it, make you feel empathy to it, whatever, except to reproduce it artificially for titillation (Ooo look Myrtle, titties at the Royal Opera -- not like Dame Eva’s day) -- it all struck me as horribly smug, frankly. Sorry to be a party pooper.

      I’m not thrilled by minotaurs and their ilk, either.

    • Often admonished

      UK trash is nowhere near as interesting or amusing. And when was the lure of the exotic unusual in opera?

      • ianw2

        Seriously? Have you not seen what happens on UK television after the watershed? All those ‘EURO SEX’ and ‘EMBARRASSING BODIES!! LOLZ!’ shows to make the eyes water.

        • Harry

          ianwz: regarding those examples of super grotty English TV programs you describe, what about the one where two tarted up overdressed ‘cleaning advisor ladies’ go to tidy up various cluttered homes -- filled with junk, filth and garbage. One of the women in particular,an aged Anna Nicole look- a -like, is a scream. In each episode, always mincing up to the front doors ‘like a cheap badly dressed night- fashion plate’ in over tight busty- tarty fashions,strutting in high heel shoes. Added to that, a ridiculously piled up high coffure of blonde hair on her head with a whopping big bun on top.
          A bossy sanitary nanny ; a Mary Poppins type character -- with broom in tow. As they say ‘Trust the English for getting up peoples’ noses with the lowest forms of crassness imaginable’.Let’s remember it is not so many decades ago their overall populace were famously renowned for that special ‘once a week wash’ at their council-ran public bath houses.
          Notice too, in so many of their TV programs set in what are invariably mouse sized homes ‘that are so cramped’………. JEZ! they even have the clothes waster tucked in amongstand around the other kitchen cabinets where they cook and serve food. Hygiene???!!! Anyone for ‘dirty jocks’ tonight?

    • David

      How audacious, nay arrogant, of two Brits to break the centuries-old operatic rule of only creating operas with stories set in one’s own country.

      • Harry

        David: The trouble though for composers writing opera too close on a recent period or specific ‘event’ is: the audience tends to have already fixed views in their own mind, where they stand in regard to the issues or characters, as portrayed. So the tendancy is to introduce or exploit / play up ‘shock elements’ . These ‘operas’ all tend to need some sort of ‘controverial highlights’ attached; to create any immediate passing interest. After which, they invariably disappear, totally forgotten. Turnage faced a similar problem with his modernizing and politicizing of the Oedipus theme in his opera ‘Greek’ decades ago. introducing and using the then British P.M. Mary Thatcher, and riot demonstration cops. I saw the work several times. It is easy to see where later, both the film and musical Billy Elliot got ideas for the srikers and cops battle scenes, from. The rise and fall of the Oedipus character was painted as a English 70’s/80’s unionised survival and class struggle against a ‘spiv success’ riches and rags backdrop of fancy cars and furs. The incest factor : was treated as if it was just a mere final passing incident.

        • Indiana Loiterer III

          As far as “the audience already having fixed views in their own minds” about contemporary subject matter being a problem--wouldn’t that be true of any well-known historical or literary subject matter, even (especially!) Shakespeare?

      • phoenix

        How audacious, why not do it up grand? You don’t have to break the centuries-old operatic rule of creating operas with stories set in one’s own county. You already have the ancient rime of the Beatles and their history in both UK and US with their origins right in your own backyard. What about the present-day Royal Family? Even more trash.
        — But it’s much easier to pick on a loser, isn’t it?

  • What I really want to know is who is going to write the Amanda Knox opera (“The Cunning Little Foxy”). It has everything: A botched murder (played for laughs), a backroom torture scene, a waif scene in jail, tabloid choruses, a mephistophelian prosecutor obsessed with satanic conspiracies that do not exist except in his own mind (mad scene! oh think what a producer could do with this!) and the ghost of the victim wailing unnoticed in the background.

    Well, I’m glad she (and the boy) got out of it. Just remember, if you’re in a back room someplace, don’t sign anything in a language you can’t read. The ones who smile don’t have your best interests at heart; their jobs mean much more to them than you ever will.

    • brooklynpunk

      …well--the film-rights are are in the works , as we speak..lol!

    • oedipe

      You could add another ingredient to your potential libretto, Hans Lick: the whole racial undercurrent (that doesn’t dare name its name).

    • Harry

      In Australia here, there are already plans in place for another similar jolting ‘recent true story’ opera. Concerning use of internet swingers clubs, a married couple, and the husband’s mistress. Husband and mistress conspire. Mistress shoves injured battered wife in boot of car, car left in main city precinct street for days for wife to die . Husband then suicides, mistress goes to jail.
      I struggle to understand what insights there are ,to be humanly gained or understood, from the creation of cheap tacky- sensational tabloid opera.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Saw it. This is better:

  • Great review, thank you so much! Made me go on utube and check for snippets. Production looks slick and amazing, Westbroek has never looked, acted or sung better, she’s mouth wateringly fantastabulous, and glamorous to boot! The music seems approachable and not overdone or cringe-worthy when depicting chrome culture, always a cringe-worthy moment in contemporary ‘art’ music, very very good writing for voices, thank Somebody! Went and ordered the blu-ray. Thanks !

  • Cocky Kurwenal

    It is a really good review, but it is interesting to note all the praise of the diction and nuance in the vocal performances- this is surely bound up with the fact that the singers were amplified in the house. The result live was sort of strange, but obviously on DVD it seems as if it has delivered great results.

    I’m not sure why it should be surprising that Pappano was totally on top of ings, but there we are.

    Westbroek is a great singer with a great voice which increasingly reminds me of Tebaldi in the warmth in the timbre of the middle voice. As for the top, I’ve never heard her have any trouble at all up there. Like all voices which are anything more than a pure lyric, she just doesn’t come across that great on broadcasts.

  • Harry, you say: “I struggle to understand what insights there are ,to be humanly gained or understood, from the creation of cheap tacky- sensational tabloid opera.”

    Exactly why I seldom go to Verismo performances. Or opera seria. Or Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

    Except, you know? A whole lot depends on what the composer does with the tacky sensational tabloid story! Gold has often been spun from dross (to avoid coarser words). Lady M of M is a case in point. Tosca is another. Rienzi -- all right, so he missed once.