That’s a quote from the libretto. There’s an aria about them. Boobs, I mean. Big fake ones.
As you may be aware, there’s an opera about the late not-so-merry (or was she?) widow Anna Nicole Smith playing at the Royal Opera House in London at present. I went and saw it, and found it fascinating, brilliant, and infuriating. Herein I will attempt to write about it. Not about how it relates to operatic history or what its media attention means for the world of opera. Because while we might have a publicity circus around this opera, what we’ve got onstage is a circus already.
Mark-Anthony Turnage–Richard Thomas. Anna Nicole. World premiere production, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 26 February 2011 (fourth performance). Production by Richard Jones with sets by Miriam Buether, costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin and D.M. Wood, and choreogrpahy by Aletta Collins. Conducted by Antonio Pappano with Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna Nicole), Susan Bickley (Virgie), Gerald Finley (The Lawyer Stern), Alan Oke (J. Howard Marshall II), Peter Hoare (Larry King).
This opera has been all over the news and blogosphere, so describing it feels a little superfluous, but here are the basics.
|Anna Nicole in her young, semi-innocent days.|
Possibly due to rumored legal threats, the opera presents Anna Nicole Smith’s life in documentary fashion. In Act 1, we see her early life through the reportage of a chorus of TV journalists. As events unfold, Anna Nicole’s family and friends comment on the action. In Act 2, things turn more personal as the reporters morph into sinister silent black figures with cameras for heads, the only allusion to Anna Nicole’s reality TV show. They observe her at every second, eager to know everything for reasons that are never clear. The sole voice of conscience is Anna Nicole’s mother, who occasionally interrupts to protest that “it so didn’t happen like that” and condemn the world to which her daughter has submitted–or that she is squeezing dry. Or both.
The plot, roughly speaking, moves from Anna Nicole’s miserable childhood in rural Texas, early marriage and motherhood, divorce, career change to stripper, career ascent as stripper via fake tits, marriage to an oil billionaire, his death, her decline into helpless drug addiction, dependence on a sleazy lawyer, her son’s death, and finally her own death at 39. We see her at her stripping job, we see her get her new boobs, and meet her decrepit consort, but increasingly, in Act 2, she disappears into her own isolated world.
|Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mother|
This is, more or less, a number opera, though the music flows continuously. The libretto is, like Anna Nicole herself, determinedly obscene. Thomas’s ear for American speech is good enough that the few mistakes stand out (we don’t say “car park”). It also is of a flashiness that, for the first act at least, largely eclipses the sparky, energetic music. It’s not that Turnage lacks a voice, and the jazzy, slightly dissonant, angular sounds are fun. But much of the time the score just doesn’t assert itself. In Act 2 things get more interesting, including a wonderful intermezzo just as the proceedings become more serious and eventually tragic (as Anna Nicole’s son dies, there is, I think, a Kindertotenlieder reference–oh no you didn’t). Anna Nicole delivers something like a lament at the end, before tiredly climbing into her own body bag.
But the very obscenity is part of the reason why this work, for all its brilliance, is somehow unfulfilling. Simply put, there’s a shortage of dramatic conflict. The excesses of American culture are skewered at every opportunity. I’m OK with this, I realize we’re a big fat target. (Sometimes I wondered if the British audience realized how much of the “satire” was simply truth–y’all know that Wal-Mart really does have an obsession with smiley faces? They didn’t make all that shit up.) The problem is that Anna Nicole the character is set up as too much a product of her culture and not enough in opposition to it. The chorus pronounces her fabulous, but she seems like a passive object of the plot, with few moments of genuine autonomy. This makes her, as a heroine or as an anti-heroine, lacking.
The text’s perspective is relentlessly male, right down to the descriptions of domestic violence and rape. Anna Nicole, proclaimed for all her obvious dumbness to be somehow street smart, never has a real moment of self-insight, something equivalent to Carmen’s fortune-telling, Violetta’s “È strano!” or even Lulu’s instinctual self-perception, and we never get a good look inside her head, empty though it may be. In her brief final monologue, she condemns America as a “dirty whore,” but it’s too little, too late, and too male again. The libretto suggests a few times that she was both victim and master of American culture, manipulator and manipulated. But it’s only an occasional theme, mostly voiced by the poignant but unintegrated character of Anna Nicole’s mother. It seems like this is where the real substance and center of the story should lie.
|Cameras are intruding|
The libretto’s naughtiness aspires to subversive glee. But is that possible for a production as elaborate and accomplished with as many patriarchal roots as this one? It might have worked in a gay community center’s basement during some Fringe Festival, but on the stage of the Royal Opera House, written and directed by famous and sophisticated men, there’s an uncomfortable undercurrent of exploitation. Is this another group of the privileged taking advantage of Anna Nicole Smith yet again? The (as yet empty) threat of a lawsuit from self-avowed Anna Nicole babydaddy Larry Birkhead against the Royal Opera House is fitting, and suggests the opera has now become not just a telling of her sad life but itself another strange coda to it.
I suppose that sounds like a severe condemnation, but despite its disappointments I actually enjoyed it a lot. The stagecraft on display is dazzling and full of wit, even if making fun of Texas hicks is something like shooting fish in a barrel. (I’ve never been to Texas, by the way, though I’m from a rural area not too far from Appalachia, so I have the general idea. We make meth jokes too.) It’s not always too original. The opening scene, in which a row of reporters tells us they are going to present the story of Anna Nicole, repeatedly declaiming her name at top volume, is a blatant rip-off of the opening of Sweeney Todd, right down to the staging. Also, those uniform-ish reporters plus a little house on stage, well, Jones’s Bayerische Staatsoper Lohengrin, anybody?
|The Lawyer Stern thinks he’s the dad|
But as a show a lot of it is brilliant, action-packed, funny (sometimes awkward funny), full of panache, and every bit as tacky as the libretto. The orchestra under Pappano sounded, as far as I could tell, great, and the cast is all top-notch and can’t be faulted for their commitment (or for their English diction). The production is a fast-changing of colorful but minimal settings with garish detail, from a strip club (with acrobatic actual pole dancers) to a Wal-Mart to Anna Nicole’s tacky final living room, and the transitions are seamless and perfectly timed.
Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Texan accent swam in and out, but as Anna Nicole she gave a star performance, and she was never less than fabulously present–or appropriately out to lunch on Anna Nicole’s distant planet–and she gave the character more heart than the libretto ever did. Vocally, she doesn’t get too many chances to use the full force of her large voice, and I can image more lyric sopranos also succeeding in the role (especially considering the light amplification). But she sounded great; her sound is truly luminous. Gerald Finley’s lawyer–a role rumored to have been rewritten when his guilty verdict in Anna Nicole’s
wrongful death giving Anna Nicole drugs was overturned last month (corrected–I was not a devoted follower of Anna Nicole Smith news, sorry)–is unfortunately something of a nothing role and a waste of his talents. Alan Oke as Anna Nicole’s aged second husband got better material, sung with verve. Susan Bickley as Virgie, the mother, was almost too poignant in an opera of caricatures.
Something of a disappointment compared to what it might have been, but an interesting one. I hope it gets picked up by another house, with revisions, because it has the polish of something big with the seeds of something far more poignant. Right now, despite the awkward bits, it’s still rampantly entertaining.
There are a few more performances, but it’s quite sold out. Queue early in the morning for day seats.
Video from CBS News–not an option you get with most operas, though it’s not embedding correctly:
Photos copyright by Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House.