Moor or less

Verdi’s Otello doesn’t have the big, underlined earworms of his earlier work. Both the music and plot move quickly and themes seem to vanish before you can grasp onto them. When a performance really works—and that isn’t very often—it all swirls into a kind of fateful vortex.

The Royal Opera House’s highly anticipated new Otello, featuring the internet’s favorite and also probably least favorite tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, in his role debut, isn’t quite that vortex. It’s a slightly disorganized storm, uneven and at times a little rote. But mixed in are some things that are really, really good.

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Les Troyens, the Royal Opera House for a horse

At least the horse is good. But the Royal Opera House’s straightforward new production of Les Troyens isn’t nearly as exciting as it should be. The cast and their singing are the best of it, and both Anna Caterina Antonacci and Eva-Maria Westbroek are well worth seeing, but somehow it underwhelms. David McVicar’s production is, for the most part, not bad, but it’s not much more than average, and the whole affair never coheres enough to rise to the occasion–the occasion, in this case, being a vague Olympics tie-in and the eternal “we’re putting on a quasi-all-star uncut Les $#!&ing Troyens, the biggest opera around that isn’t in four parts.”

Berlioz, Les Troyens. Royal Opera House, 7/1/2012. New production directed by David McVicar, sets by Es Devlin, costumes by Moritz Junge, lights by Wolfgang Göbbel, choreography by Andrew George. Conducted by Antonio Pappano with Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cassandre), Fabio Capitanucci (Coroebus), Bryan Hymel (Aeneas), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Dido), Hanna Hipp (Anna), Jin-Min Park (Iopas), Brindley Sherratt (Narbal), Ed Lyon (Hylas).

David McVicar is a smart and slick director, but rarely a profound one and over the past few years his productions seem to be losing more and more intellectual weight. (I think his Faust is legitimately brilliant, and I love his Zauberflöte, both at the ROH, but his more recent Anna Bolena and Trovatore, both at the Met, are adequate at best.) For Troyens he pulls one of his favorite tricks, setting the opera in the time in which it was composed, here around the 1850s. But that’s about the extent of his Konzept, which never creates a compelling reason for why this siege and escape happen. Who are these Trojans, Greeks, Carthaginians, or future Romans? (This exposition is something McVicar achieves with model efficiency in his Giulio Cesare, seen nearly everywhere already and coming to the Met next year). It doesn’t have to be a historically specific definition–though since he sets the piece in a historically specific milieu that might be the most satisfying–but it has to be something dramatically convincing. Here too much is left empty, with familiar-looking nineteenth-century images that do little to define the setting or characters. Nor did the cast seem to be on the same wavelength as this setting, or for that matter with each other.

The Troy acts are far easier to stage and the production works best here. The Trojans have holed up in a vaguely steampunk setting of industrial detritus surrounding a giant metal tower. Why the industrial stuff? I thought momentarily of the broken machines in Heart of Darkness, but that’s all I got. For people suffering under a long siege the Trojans look damn good, the women in beautiful dresses and the men in elaborate uniforms. (While I’m not sure why it was there, much of the design in this half is very striking.) Swooping through all of this is Anna Caterina Antonacci’s old school Cassandra, with the dramatic postures and oversized gesture of, maybe, the 1850s, or a visitor from Planet Sarah Bernhardt. Eyes painted on her hands lets her tell people’s fortunes–based on her reactions, most of them aren’t getting happy endings. If there’s anyone who can pull this kind of thing off it’s Antonacci, and she’s great fun, but Gesamtkunstwerk it’s not.

The set piece effects in Troy work well. While the Horse might seem a challenge I’m pretty sure that as long as you produce something very big and equine it’s going to be a hit, and this one, welded of abandoned weapons and snorting fire, is no exception. It looms large and is very exciting. McVicar does a good job with the ceremonies in this act as well, coming up with something convincingly ritualistic and appropriate to the music. The dancing, however, made me decide that if I ever run an opera company I will ban the use of cartwheels, somersaults, handsprings, back handsprings, backwards somersaults, and any other gymnastics in all of my productions. (The dances in Carthage made me want to expand this ban to all dance entirely–more on that in a second.)

While the Troy acts are all dark excitement and desolation, Dido’s Carthage is a land of plenty and peace and sunniness. The dark metal tower turns into a multi-tiered sandstone city, as well as a model of a tiny city that variously sits on the stage and hovers above it to no clear purpose. Unfortunately McVicar gives into a wide variety of tired Orientalist cliches out of an unironicized Ingres painting (without the nudity, surprisingly enough). Like in many other productions of Troyens, the Carthaginians have built a glorious city but not yet discovered chairs, and prefer to languish on cushions while wearing robes and shiny jewelry. The dances are more frequent and far more annoying, with lousy slinky choreography, some horribly tacky rainbow costumes and, during a typically McVicarian naiad abduction in the Chasse royale, a tree that bursts into flames. Presumably it was struck by lightning, but the effect is that Aeneas and Dido’s love is signaled by a burning bush, Old Testament style.

There is some lazy stagecraft in the last act, with a large portion of Dido’s final scene played extreme downstage in front of a black curtain, presumably as the pyre is set up behind it. While this got Eva-Maria Westbroek right down to the apron, it’s more than a litle anticlimactic and out of character for the rest of the production. The final step, however, is a mistake not of economy but of opulence. Perhaps skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to be “spoiled” but a giant head with a pointing hand enters at the curtain, looking like a man version of the Horse, presumably pointing Italie-wards. Maybe it’s Hannibal. Whatever, it’s embarrassingly like a last-minute cameo from the Terminator (not, strangely enough, pictured in any of the official photos).

McVicar knows how to create engaging Personenregie, but the staging fails to provide a larger vision, and the weirdness in the design and especially the dance unwelcomingly recalls the commodity elements of the grand opera genre. It’s a luxury buffet of what we purportedly want to see, unfortunately all the dishes don’t work together. I must say the lighting is gorgeous, though.

The cast ranged from decent to excellent. Antonio Pappano’s conducting was straightforwardly exciting and quickly paced, but tended to shortchange Berlioz’s quirkiness. I missed the orchestral detail, unusual timbres, and rapid changes of mood of Colin Davis or John Eliot Gardiner. The orchestra sounded absolutely excellent until the end, when the brass began to tire. The chorus sounded super the whole way through, and with this opera’s number of choruses that makes a big difference. The aforementioned Antonacci was surely the highlight, out of place as she was, she can declaim with such conviction and vivid presence that you forget anyone else is onstage. It’s a shame Cassandre is only in the first few hours of this epic–and only Antonacci managed to transmit a sense of the epic.

Antonacci also held a monopoly on gravitas among the cast, the rest of whom were lacking in this department. I like soprano Didos, and Eva-Maria Westbroek’s shimmering tone suits the part. She sounded lovely despite a certain lack of French style. But I wasn’t entirely convinced on a theatrical level. In roles like Sieglinde her down to earth, big sister stage persona is a great asset, but it worked against her here. Her Dido began insecure and worried and only gradually gained in stature (as her voice tired)–but it was too late, in my opinion. This interpretation could have worked had the production fit it, but as it was the second half lacked a strong center.

As Aeneas, Bryan Hymel sang some spectacularly powerful high notes, and his super technique kept his smallish voice even and consistent through the entire long role. But despite really throwing himself into it, both he and his sound are severely lacking in glamour and charisma–the voice is basically monochromatic and plain, particularly in the lower register, and like Westbroek he seems like a guy you’d hang out with rather than an ancient hero. (I have little doubt he sang the role far better than Giordani is likely to do at the Met in December, however.)

The supporting cast was solid, highlighted by Hanna Hipp’s Anna, who was slow to warm up in the duet with Dido but whose rich tone sounded absolutely lovely in the duet with Narbal. Fabio Capitanucci was a stiff but authoritatively-voiced Coroebus, Brindley Sherrett a first-rate Narbal, and Ed Lyon one of the few cast members who sounded French-ish as Hylas.

After around four hours of opera, I peered into the pit to see a cellist flipping to the back of his part, counting the pages remaining. I hate to say it but I could kind of see his point. This was a missed opportunity.

Les Troyens at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Photos copyright Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House

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Anna Nicole: All power to boobs

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.

He’s rich.

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.

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