How well did the tale of a waitress turned Playboy model and billionaire's wife translate to the operatic stage? Helen Wallace finds out
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Overheard audience opinions are always rewarding at Covent Garden: ‘Absolutely monstrous!’ hissed an outraged matron from Tunbridge Wells. ‘Well, I never thought I’d see the day a new opera made me laugh!’ retorted another, cheerier soul.
Opening in a week when a young girl died of a botched buttock implant procedure, Anna Nicole, the story of the silicone-enhanced, Texan trailer-trash pole dancer who married a billionaire, failed to inherit and died of an overdose is without doubt an opera of our troubled times.
Created by Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer, the Opera) and Mark-Anthony Turnage, and gleefully directed by Richard Jones, it’s a wickedly exuberant, 'in-yer-face' morality-tale for a ‘reality’-soaked society. While the regular audience around me clearly divided on questions of taste, critics recognised it as an opera in the most venerable tradition.
Most loved it: for its outrageous panache, pace, wit and the superlative performances of soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna), tenor Alan Oke (Howard Marshall), baritone Gerald Finley (Howard Stern, the lawyer) and mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley (Anna’s mother).
Hugh Canning of The Sunday Times pleaded for its immediate revival, settling on Handel's Semele as its true model. The Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen was impressed by the way ‘Turnage seems to have found precisely the right musical idiom for such a drama – an Americana, brashly orchestrated and violently propulsive which embraces jazz, blues, musical comedy and lounge smooch so ingeniously … as to transcend mere pastiche.’
Others disagreed: for Michael White (The Telegraph), there were too many obvious musical quotations, and the libretto gave us ‘too much information’ which Turnage couldn’t keep up with, but had ‘nothing of profundity to say about its subject’.
Fiona Maddocks (Observer) enjoyed it but detected this imbalance too: ‘Turnage feels straitjacketed by the internal rhymes and relentless dazzle of Richard Thomas’s text.’ This was the crux of the matter for Andrew Clements (The Guardian), who, alone among reviewers, awarded it only two stars: ‘There are very few moments when the drama is driven by the music, when the cartoon-like scenes, with cliché texts and schoolboy humour, are given shape and purpose by Turnage’s contribution.’
Some felt that amplification was unnecessary and drowned out the subtler aspects of scoring (like the presence of jazz trio Peter Erskine, John Paul Jones and John Parricelli) but I learnt that it had been considerably toned down by the time I saw it towards the end of this run (it closes Friday 4 March), and the increasingly beguiling score came shining through, with Erskine’s drum lending an irresistible kick, and conductor Antonio Pappano swinging it like a pro.
The question is, was it more than a naughty postcard from Hollywood’s seamier edge? I think so: this Anna Nicole is essentially innocent (unlike the real one, who did leave her octagenarian hubby out in the rain and feed him raw bacon); by the time of her death, she has our sympathy, and this move into tragedy is largely driven by a powerfully lyric, but inimitably Turnagian score, full of keening saxophones and glistening sonorities.
But there is a problem: Westbroek has to be the most wholesome blonde you ever saw. Not for a moment do we believe this statuesque woman with a celestial soprano could really be a stripper, even when she wiggles her hips a little and croons a hymn to designer Jimmy Choo.
A more dangerous, raunchier Anna Nicole would ratchet up the tension, and make it feel more like a (very) high-class musical. Which brings me to another opera-musical-morality tale: Bernstein’s Candide. As a structure, Anna Nicole is infinitely better; but, cruel though I feel saying it, if only it had half the wit and the subtlety of Candide’s best numbers, we’d all be laughing a lot louder.
Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine