The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Alan Oke, Gerald Finley, Susan Bickley, Loré Lixenberg, Peter Hoare, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Allison Cook, Andrew Rees, Grant Doyle, Wynne Evans
World Premiere - February 17th, 2011
A few eyebrows will have been raised, and no little amount of scepticism expressed, when it was announced that Mark-Anthony Turnage would be writing an opera for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden about Anna Nicole Smith, a former Playboy model who died of a drug overdose in 2007. In reality, however there’s nothing at all new about opera dealing with women who live scandalous lives and come to an untimely end. If Turnage’s Anna Nicole is unlikely however to be considered a masterpiece on the scale of Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, La Traviata or Lulu, it at least has the advantage of dealing with a contemporary subject with the kind of social lifestyle and aspirations that a modern audience can relate to more easily. And if the merits of Anna Nicole as an opera can certainly be questioned, there is at least no doubt, judging from the headlines and media attention that it has generated, that is indeed a worthy subject of great interest to the general public.
Commissioned by the Royal Opera House under the direction currently of Antonio Pappano – a great supporter of opening up opera to a wider audience – the general public would at least have been no doubt familiar with the subject of the opera, Anna Nicole Smith, and have some familiarity with the nature of her “career” and the circumstances of her death at the age of only 39. What was rather less certain was the tone that would be adopted by Mark-Anthony Turnage (Greek, The Silver Tassie) – a composer who can be rather experimental in his work, and is known for incorporating jazz and other forms of modern music into his compositions. It didn’t take too long for it to be established that the tone of the opera would be heavily influenced by the choice of Richard Thomas as librettist, the resulting barrage of rhyming couplets, with a high swearword quotient, bring Anna Nicole closer to Thomas’ work on Jerry Springer the Opera than to Turnage’s Greek.
Initial and surface impressions however prove to be deceptive, for while Anna Nicole Smith’s early life, her escape from the “shithole” backwater of Mexia (pronounced Mu-HAY-ah, we are told, as if it gives the town some kind of distinction) and her first marriage to Billy Smith is very much the kind of material that US daytime TV shows thrive on, it does nonetheless have a relevance to how a large proportion of society live and it reflects their aspirations, unpalatable thought they may appear to an opera-going audience. Just as significantly, the manner in which the opera is initially presented and the tone it strikes is vitally important, and indeed it ought to match and be appropriate to the content. The decision then to present it through the medium of a chorus of TV hosts to whom Anna Nicole, already dead but looking back over her life in the manner of a reality TV show and tracing the path that will ultimately lead to her destruction, is a masterstroke, imbuing the piece with a slightly sinister edge that grows as the opera proceeds. The opera darkens considerably by the second half, when it does indeed become a tragedy, as the people in her life disappear to be replaced by masses of ominous black figures with TV cameras for heads.
While there are certainly plenty of eye-catching sights in the imaginative, colourful, tastefully tacky set-designs (by Richard Jones) to provide entertainment, with strong language and even a sequence in a lap-dancing parlour replete with breast-enhanced women twirling themselves gymnastically and provocatively from poles – all things that are, I think it’s safe to say, not all that common on the stage of the Royal Opera House and likely therefore to generate interest and headlines – it’s easy to be distracted from what is going on musically and in the opera as a whole. Richard Thomas’ rhyming couplets, which deliberately clearly signal their intentions to rhyme at the end with four-letter words and other mildly shocking profanities, actually manage to cut through the niceties directly to harsh realities of the circumstances of Anna Nicole’s life in a tone that is appropriate and understandable to a modern-day audience. It’s reality-TV language, but there’s something in the phenomenon and popularity of reality-TV as a representation of the American Dream that is worth examining, and Thomas’ libretto gets to the hard truths and the tragedy of it all, wrapping it up cleverly in pithy, satirical and witty phrases.
It’s easy also to be distracted from what Turnage is doing musically, but he, likewise, succeeds allowing the nature of the opera’s subject to establish the correct tone rather than imposing his own upon it. In doing so moreover, Turnage nonetheless finds a perfect expression for his own musical language and the often American influences that he draws from and incorporates into his music. Anna Nicole Smith’s leaving of Mexia (pronounced Mu-HAY-ah), for Huston, where she works in a Wal-Mart store, is set to a blues rhythm that matches the zombie-like movements of its employees, a swinging jazz percussion accompaniment is used for the strip-club scene, while other scenes evoke George Gershwin. Antonio Pappano, conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, succeeded in allowing the music score to assert its presence at such times, darkening the tone considerably in the tragedy of the Second Act, by which stage the audience were thoroughly in the grip of the piece and solemnly mindful of where it was leading. Much credit for the embodiment of the tragedy that Anna Nicole’s life would represent has to go to the Eva-Maria Westbroek. As a Wagnerian soprano, her voice wasn’t at all tested by the limited singing demands of the role, but she sang exceptionally well and managed to bring out the inherent humanity of her character, never letting her be merely an icon, nor indeed, allowing it to descend into parody.
Whether Anna Nicole is ultimately considered a success as an opera – it received a very warm reception at its World Premiere from the audience at Covent Garden and a guardedly positive response from the national press – it is at least a success as far as the Royal Opera House is concerned, selling out its initial short run of six shows, but more importantly generating more interest and front page headlines than any other important opera event, premiere or any drawing of the biggest names in the opera to the house have achieved. Beyond its artistic merits, whether the opera ultimately has anything new to say or whether it touches on anything deeper in its subject – all of which are debatable and subjective – what Anna Nicole demonstrates is that opera can still be a vital artform that can address contemporary subjects in a powerful manner that connects with a modern audience.