Turnage: Anna Nicole
LABELS: Opus Arte
WORKS: Anna Nicole
PERFORMER: Eva-Maria Westbroek, Gerald Finley, Alan Oke, Susan Bickley, Grant Doyle, Andrew Rees, Peter Hoare, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts et al; Royal Opera House Chorus & Orchestra/Antonio Pappano; dir. Richard Jones (ROH, London, 2011)
CATALOGUE NO: Opus Arte DVD: OA 1054 D; Opus Arte Blu-ray: OABD 7088D
Watching Anna Nicole gave me a strange sense of familiarity – not with Turnage’s Greek or The Silver Tassie, but librettist Richard Thomas’s more famous Jerry Springer: The Opera, a hip, heartless pastiche exploiting bizarre sexual situations set to operatic music. Thomas’s anti-heroine, whom he insists ‘belongs in opera’, was a Middle American stripper whose ancient billionaire husband’s death abandoned her to a decade of litigation over his estate, eccentric media antics and the loss of her son and finally her own life to drug addiction. A pathetic story, but a sleazy one, and it’s the latter Thomas chiefly revels in.
The first act in particular has nothing of The Silver Tassie’s savage humanity. Turnage’s characteristic jazzy rhythms chiefly provide rather generalised accompaniment to Thomas’s comic-strip biopic. Supposedly crucial figures like the fiercely protective mother Virgie (Susan Bickley) and lawyer-lover Stern (Gerald Finley) develop no dramatic depth or musical character. The second act improves somewhat, as Anna Nicole’s life disintegrates, and emotion enters the score: her aria-like celebration of her eating disorders, her wretched son Daniel’s litany of addictions, and one haunted interlude, somewhere between Bernstein and Janáˇcek, depicting that lost decade – the only music that actually stuck in my mind.
Richard Jones’s staging if anything moderates Thomas’s America-bashing clichés – stripperamas, trailer parks, gun-happy low-lifes, Larry King, bubblegum-pink lighting and so on – but even this, Antonio Pappano’s conducting and superior singers like Bickley, Finley, and Alan Oke, can’t bring the story to life. And while one can only admire Eva-Maria Westbroek’s courage and staying power, she flings rather than sings some of her lines. Michael Scott Rohan