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Turnage, Anna Nicole :  Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Antonio Pappano. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Thursday, 17.2.2011 (CC)

Eva-Maria Westbroek - Anna Nicole

Susan Bickley - Virgie, Anna’s mother

Jeremy White - Daddy Mogan, Anna’s father

Gerald Finley - Stern

Rebecca De Pont Davies - Aunt Kay

Wynne Evans - Mayor of Mexia

Damian Thantrey - Deputy Mayor of Maxia (Roy Fiction)

Loré Luxenberg - Shelley

Grant Doyle - Billy

Alan Oke - J. Howard Marshall II

Andrew Rees - Dr Yes

Andrew Gilbert - Young Daniel

Dominic Rowntree - Teenage Daniel

Peter Hoare - Larry King (A Television Journalist)

Eva-Maria Westbroek  as Anna Nicole
Picture © The Royal Opera/Catherine Cooper


The hype for this opera was amazing (idly listening to LBC in the afternoon, I was amazed to hear a news item about this premiere). The result was a buzz from what looked like a sold-out audience the like of which I have not encountered. As I left the opera house (not one to be swayed by cheers, me), a journalist accosted me on the street: “We’re doing interviews with audience members - can you give me your reaction to Anna Nicole?”. I declined, politely, quoting my allegiance to Seen & Heard. The newshounds continue their pursuit of Anna, clearly. Or, what Anna may become - the Anna-myth, the Anna as prime exemplar of the ills of our society.


Indeed, Turnage picked a brave subject: Anna Nicole Smith, the Playboy model who married the 89 year old oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall II, and the resultant fall-out: her neglect of Marshall, his death and the ensuing court case headed by Stern, the lawyer that Anna Nicole was to marry. The opera ends with Smith’s death of an apparent overdose in 2007, aged only 39 - she zips up her own body bag. The scandal continues. The family of Smith are threatening to sue the Royal Opera House; the ROH has responded by claiming that Anna Nicole is a “modern day parable”. Opera is hip again.


I have always held Mark-Anthony Turnage in high regard. Best known for his large orchestral works and the opera Greek, I have also been impressed by his handling of chamber forces (a Black Box disc - see - exemplifies this side of him perfectly). Anna Nicole, musically, is a mixture. Not in the characteristically-Turnage sense of jazz and contemporary classical, but in quality of musical output. The first act frequently meanders in the manner of too many contemporary American operas (try the Arsis catalogue for works by the likes of David Conte and Elena Ruehr). The second act finds Turnage in tauter form, his language more consistently interesting as the drama heads towards its tragic conclusion.


Anna Nicole could be called an operatic reflection on all that is bad in contemporary culture. Gaudy and blatantly tasteless, pictures of Anna replace the hallowed photos in the ROH’s corridors, her ample, surgically-enhanced breasts uncomfortably placed at eye level; her picture is on every TV monitor; even the Royal insignia is changed to a picture of Anna surrounded a two über-camp bebra-ed body builder on either side, one with a crown, the other with a unicorn horn (luckily, and uncharacteristically for the evening, the horn comes out of his head).


Richard Thomas is the librettist. He is known as one of the co-creators of the West End hit Jerry Springer: the opera. The language in this libretto is undeniably of our age: this, surely, is the only opera to include a chorus to the glory of “tits”. Expletives abound. There is a Mailyn Monroe-like phrase of decidedly multiple meaning: “I want to blow you all” ... and we have to wait for the conclusion (which, after all, may never have arrived), “.....a kiss”.


It has been a while since I have been to Covent Garden, but have they really changed their audience announcement re the turning off of mobiles so that it refers to “cell phones”?. I hope this was only part of the opera house’s plan to saturate the audience in Anna Nicoliana before even the first note is sounded.


The first act finds Anna as narrator as well as participant. The jazz elements are there in the musical language. In fact, it is when Turnage turns away from them that the anonymity of his language here becomes apparent. If the subject matter weren’t so gaudy, how long, I wonder, would it take us to lose all interest? Wal-Mart and lap-dancing clubs are all part of the dramatic armoury. Anna’s breasts become unfeasibly large, post-implant, giving her a cartoon-like demeanour (as well as giving her back ache for the rest of her short life). There is no denying the slickness of it all, though, the choruses in particular.


Was I imagining the figure of Aaron Copland in the background to the music that opens the second act? It seemed immediately apparent that Turnage’s writing was more assured, anyway, and so it was to continue until the opera’s conclusion. The orchestra itself seemed to come alive, be it in the more reflective moments, in the mad orchestral scramble at the moment of J. Howard Marshall’s heart attack or in the powerful orchestral interlude. The use of ballet dancers with TV cameras for heads was simultaneously amusing and disturbing (presumably the point of the entire opera). Turnage managed to bring himself back from the brink and pull out an effective, touching ending.


The cast is strong. Eva-Maria Westbroek braves the title role with aplomb. She throws herself fully into the role - it is difficult to imagine a more assured assumption. There were two other clear stars - Susan Bickley, who took the role of Anna’s mother with such dramatic clarity and heart-wrenching singing, and Gerald Finley as Anna’s lawyer-lover-husband who sells Anna’s act of giving birth to Pay-per-View. A slick Peter Hoare takes the role of Larry King (an operatic version of the famous interview) with real aplomb. As J. Howard Marshall II, Alan Oke gives a convincing portrayal of an old man with far too much money and power on a trajectory to tragedy.


There is, according to the ROH blurb, “a very light use of amplification on the soloists in order to increase the clarity of the words”. It didn’t sound too light to me (it was immediately obvious). One has to praise the orchestra - their response to Turnage’s challenges was magnificent. And this is hardly Pappano core repertory, but he embraces the event with real passion. I question the opera Anna Nicole’s longevity, though. Her life was cruelly cut short. This opera’s life may provide an unintentional parallel.


Colin Clark


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