'Anna Nicole'

"Anna Nicole" is a headline-grabbing, high-art, low-life collision that is funny, foul-mouthed and fast-paced.

Letting characters sing the line “It’s a unique story so you won’t be bored” is dangerous to the point of hubris. But in “Anna Nicole,” it’s nothing but the truth. Commissioned by the Royal Opera, composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas have fashioned a headline-grabbing, high-art, low-life collision that is funny, foul-mouthed and fast-paced. Musically and dramatically, it’s ultimately less than satisfying, but Richard Jones’ spectacular yet exhilaratingly precise production ensures that it’s extraordinarily entertaining. When was the last time anyone said that of a new opera?

Comic opera is usually a contradiction in terms but Thomas is a former stand-up. His notably audible text (assisted by super-titles) about the tawdry, true-life,rise and fall of his white-trash, flat-then-huge-chested Anna Nicole Smith is driven by rhyming couplets and gags that are often genuinely amusing. A bored female quartet awaiting implants dolefully intone “we are the restless, breastless masses” – which, thanks to the musical setting, is funnier on stage than on the page.

But Thomas’s live comedy experience shows mostly through his ability to hold audiences’ attention – a serious rarity in opera. Neither scenes nor arias outstay their welcome for purely musical exploration. In the first act, however, that causes problems.

Events are initially presented via a huge interrogatory chorus of TV news journalists, identikit blond-wigged and suited – men in grey, women in air-stewardess turquoise. Performing for them (and us), Anna Nicole (Eva-Maria Westbroek – Sieglinde at Bayreuth and, shortly, the Met), recounts her well-known life with tiny acted-out scenes as illustration. But even Jones’ exuberant staging and the super-saturated colors of Mim Jordan Sherin and D.M. Wood’s lighting cannot disguise the fact that this isn’t opera, it’s oratorio which is presentational but not dramatic.

Everything strengthens after the intermission. That’s partly due to the heroine’s tragic trajectory. She slides from Jimmy Choo-wearing wealth down to her own death via drug abuse, the death of her ancient billionaire husband (superbly sung and played with alarming conviction by decades-younger Alan Oke) and the machinations of her lawyer-lover Stern (Gerald Finley, who sings with tone as beautifully honed as his manipulative manner).

The real reason for the second-act strength is because the writers finally allow moments to breathe and acquire weight.

In a merciful shift away from his 2000 opera “The Silver Tassie,” Turnage eschews the default position of contemporary vocal writing. Out goes near permanent angst and leaping soprano lines in the upper stratospheres making text inaudible, in comes recognizable vocal shapes in clear rhythmic patterns.

Much of the music is, however, pastiche. Smartly, its critique of Americana matches music and subject matter. There’s strummed banjo for a scene at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken. The more yearning music has shades of Leonard Bernstein, and the Royal Opera House orchestra, especially the brass section, has a fine time getting down and dirty in an explanatory scene at a lap-dance club. But faintly heretical thoughts occur, like, didn’t Jule Styne do this better when he and Sondheim wrote “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” for the strippers in “Gypsy”?

Ironically for an opera, Turnage’s voice only really comes through in dark orchestral passages and accompaniments, the exception being a slow, sustained trio just before Anna’s death where she, Stern and her mother (Susan Bickley) offer contrasted laments and warnings. It underlines the intent of presenting Anna as victim. Although the opera ultimately aims at tragedy, it misses despite Westbroek’s flawless central performance.

Like everything in the show (and it is, most definitely, a show), Westbroek is energized by Jones’ direction. Whether he’s marshalling black-clad dancers pawing the ground while wearing threatening movie cameras on their heads, or eliciting immensely stylized but truthful detailing from every character’s every action, Jones’ bravura production sweeps most doubts aside. Whether the piece would feel as good in other hands is currently open to doubt.

Anna Nicole

Royal Opera House, London; 2,254 seats; £75 top

Production

A Royal Opera presentation of an opera in two acts with music by Mark-Anthony Turnage, libretto by Richard Thomas. Directed by Richard Jones. Conducted by Antonio Pappano.

Creative

Sets, Miriam Buether; costumes, Nicky Gillibrand; lighting, Mimi Jordan Sherin and D.M. Wood; choreography, Aletta Collins; production stage manager, Will Harding. Opened, reviewed Feb. 17, 2011. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast

Anna Nicole - Eva-Maria Westbroek
J. Howard Marshall II - Alan Oke
The Lawyer Stern - Gerald Finley
Virgie - Susan Bickley
Cousin Shelley - Lore Lixenberg
Aunt Kay - Rebecca de Pont Davies
Billy - Grant Doyle
Daddy Hogan - Jeremy White
With: Louise Armit, Yvonne Barclay, Katy Batho, Amy Catt, Allison Cook, Marianne Cotterill, Wynne Evans, Amanda Floyd, Andrea Hazell, Peter Hoare, Kiera Lyness, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Dominic Peckham, Andrew Rees, Dominic Rowntree, Damian Thantrey, ZhengZhong Zhou.
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