I tweeted it at the time, and I say it again here. I so wanted to like this. The Royal Opera House had pulled out all the stops – not least in the marketing department – for this collaboration of Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer, the Opera fame). It was not, however, to be, and I fear that what follows is going to make me appear humourless and about 25 years older than I am. Whatever.
Arriving at the opera house, the audience were left in no doubt that this was ‘an event’. Photo boards all around the House, more usually given over to vintage images of opera stars of yore, were covered over with the same pouting, bosom-caressing image of (I think) Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole Smith, and likewise all of the television screens carried that image. In the auditorium, her face was strapped to every cherub on the balcony fascias, a Marilyn Monroe style headshot was placed over the head of Queen Victoria, and the ROH curtain was replaced by a vivid pink number, with the Royal crest reinterpreted to include two body builders but, rather daringly, retaining the crown and both Dieu et mon droit and Honi soit qui mal y pense. Considering that the usual translation is Shame be to him who thinks evil of it, this gaudy reworking signified one of the evening’s more notable ironies.
The ROH marketing department were in overdrive and, to their credit, it had worked some magic. There was, indeed, a buzz. Their Twitter stream was beside itself with star-spotting in the Foyer: Graham Norton, Vivienne Westwood, Yoko Ono, Richard Thomas, Mike Leigh, Mary Portas, Mika and Boy George. Oh yes, a veritable operatic glitterati. At least one of them had something to do with this evening… and we’ll come to that later.
So, when the curtain went up, there was some excitement in the air. It is a shame, therefore, that having drummed up this kind of enthusiasm around the building, the curtain didn’t go up on something more genuinely interesting and challenging, or something that did some credit to either its subject or to the genre of opera. The only feature of Anna Nicole that makes it suitable for the title ‘opera’ is that it is through-sung. This review concerns Anna Nicole, the Musical.
Act 1 is trivia; act 2 – which is, admittedly, better – reaches for pathos and some attempt at character development. The story of Anna Nicole is neatly laid out by the show as it has been by the trash media. Poor background, dysfunctional family, poor choice of men from a restricted selection, a son, move to big city (Houston), lap dancing bar, lack of success, boob job, better success, bagged billionaire, unconventional relationship, death of billionaire, legal wranglings over will, addiction to drugs given to ease back pain caused by boob job, avaricious lawyer as boyfriend, decline, death of son, further humiliation, death through overdose.
It is, indeed, a rich cocktail for opera. The concept of the poor, excluded woman using her ‘attributes’ to climb into society’s higher echelons (however defined), only to fall again, is of course a familiar operatic topic, not least in Verdi’s La Traviata.
Anna Nicole’s climb through the first act culminates in her marriage to billionaire J Howard Marshall II. On the way, the issue of her breast augmentation is dealt with. To some extent, this is the crux of the story: this is the point at which Anna Nicole seems to attempt to take as much control of her destiny as she is able. It may not be the fundamental tragedy of her life – that would be the dysfunctional, poverty-bound upbringing – but of all definite decisions made during her life, this is one of the most tragic, with its legacy of drugs to control the back pain and her subsequent image as a surgically-enhanced grotesque. And how do Turnage and Thomas treat it? With an attempted comedy number consisting of synonyms for ‘tits’ set to music. This is the single biggest moment of failure in the whole piece. This is not a moment of comedy, this is a moment of utter tragedy that compounds all that goes before it, and sets the direction for all that follows. But never mind, it’s a great opportunity for some boob jokes. Nice one, boys.
The character of her monstrous mother is present throughout, pointing to constant debate about whether she did her best, or whether she is the cause of the grief. At the moment of Anna Nicole’s wedding, her mother is given an astonishing number in which she rails against men and their use of women, and the way masculine culture forces women into exploitation. Interesting? Except that it’s expressed in language so violently offensive that its meaning is knocked sideways by the adjustment needed. I seem to remember ‘fuck’ (a much-used word throughout) and ‘cunt’, also ‘cuntalicious’ (oh yes, indeed!) and ‘cum-bucket’. Shocking? Not really. Clever? Certainly not. Distracting? Yes. Effective? Well, I’ve heard all of those words deployed with much greater punch by drag queens in raucous cabaret. Here, they sounded pathetically trivial. It’s Jerry Springer the Opera all over again, without Christians to get indignant. I think the most serious weaknesses of the piece probably all rest with Richard Thomas’s over-literal, aren’t-we-funny-cos-we’re-swearing, rum-te-tum libretto.
Act 2 begins to improve. The music adopts more space as the tragedy builds. A clever scene presents an episode of Larry King Live, but does so without quite delineating it properly from the settings that went before, so that it is difficult to be fully ‘hit’ by Anna Nicole’s strange drug-infused behaviour as, I think, we’re supposed to be. It’s just a continuation of the weird world of this piece. As we move on to the set that is to be the scene of double tragedy – both her son’s and her own death – there is increasing intrusion from the one very effective and very clever aspect of the production: sinuous black leotard-clad dancers with huge TV cameras for heads start to prowl eerily, pointing themselves at key scenes and leaning forward. It is chilling, but it’s fighting an uphill battle against broader trivia and a continuous restlessness that never lets any scene, emotion or moment last for long enough to register. Dead people around her (including her husband) are zipped into black plastic body bags and, eventually, one is laid out for her, she gets into it and sings a few lines before being zipped into it by the cameras. Richard Jones employs his tried-and-true techniques, which have played so well in other productions: the synchronised chorus movements, the bright colours, the puppet-headed figures. It works quite well; unfortunately there just isn’t quite enough substance to keep it going.
The comparison with La Traviata, made earlier, highlights everything that is wrong with Anna Nicole. There is no moment of introspective tragedy, no space to reflect, no opportunity to learn about this character, no chance to hear from her directly about the tragedy that is unfolding around her and to join her in her viewpoint. The whole construction of the piece is entirely narrative. It is a show dealing entirely in events, not in emotions or in characters. There is no equivalent of, for example, Violetta’s despairing Addio del passato in which any emerging empathy can be tapped. Instead, we have ‘voices off’ singing another list number, this time detailing all the drugs with which one can hasten one’s decline. It’s all a trashy joke, and this woman’s tragedy is part of the great joke of life, and when we’re not being invited to laugh, we’re being kept at a decent distance from actually connecting with her. It is this that makes it so disappointing: it is no more or less than part of the exploitation that was Anna Nicole Smith’s lot. It is also disappointing as a supposed attempt at using the artform of opera on a contemporary subject. Opera is capable of subtlety and depth and it is for this reason that I refuse to treat Anna Nicole as such. Those that herald the death of opera in the face of contemporary cultural norms point to the likes of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, with its coarse narrative and patchy, cardboard characters: they may as well point to Anna Nicole for all the same faults, except they don’t because the ‘contemporary subject’ gives it a surface fashionability that deflects such criticism. But the comparison with Lucrezia is significant: Anna Nicole does absolutely nothing to advance the artform of opera, bar adding the word ‘fuck’ to the surtitle board.
The music didn’t really help. It appeared to be stuck between a percussion-infused Philip Glass and Leonard Bernstein, without really being able to make up its mind where it was going. The first act was entirely unmemorable. The second had a notable rhythmic pulse underpinning a building of tension towards the end, but its bursts of lyricism had no consistency, no real connection to the drama. Vocal lines seemed consistently disjointed from what was going on in the pit and, worse, when they coincided seemed to drown the vocal line completely. Rumours abounded before the opening that amplification was to be used; if it was, I couldn’t tell for the most part, but more of it was desperately needed. Thank God for the surtitles in that respect. On the other had, the surtitles consistently killed the spontaneity of the lines and any humour.
Eva-Maria Westbroek did wonders with the part of Anna Nicole. Having heard her stream forth glorious, secure, gleaming tone in Tannhäuser recently, it was odd that she was so difficult to hear or discern. In part, this was due to the Texan accent that softened consonants, and the speed of the wordplay which simply made it impossible to project effectively. In moments of more sustained line, she was as vocally glorious as we might expect. Her portrayal, as the evening went on, grew steadily and she clearly revelled in it, making much with what she was given. The same can be said for Gerald Finley as the lawyer, Stern: he could insinuate, rail and charm with ease, and a clear baritonal warmth and security. Susan Bickley, as Anna Nicole’s mother, was bravely declamatory with her frequently rude words and sported a police uniform in appropriately dour manner. Alan Oke seemed also to revel in J Howard Marshall II, replete with gold lamé tracksuit in which to conk out. There were many others on stage, too numerous to name. They spent an inordinate amount of time milling about…
The ROH orchestra did good things, I guess: they were certainly incisive and, if there were any fluffs, they got lost in the meandering score. John Paul Jones and colleagues popped on at one point, to stand on an oversized mattress and keep the party music going (to Pappano’s beat) for all of about five minutes. Pappano kept everything taut and efficient – I can’t really add much to that statement, I’m afraid.
By the end, I was feeling a little more benign about this whole charade than this review may suggest. As we filed through the Floral Hall, however, where people were gathering for the afterparty, we entered the foyer of the old building to see an orange paper bag, bearing image of Anna Nicole Smith, resting over the head of the statue of Adelina Patti. I am willing to risk accusations of over-sensitivity but, taken together with the attempted cover-up of all that is operatic around the Opera House, I was severely irritated by this pathetic, cheap, disrespectful hype. If the Royal Opera House is embarrassed by the long-standing art of opera, in front of its new-found ‘friends’, then maybe the art should go elsewhere. If, on the other had, it feels the symbolic need to protect its old traditions, symbolised by Patti, from the assault that it is mounting upon them, then maybe it needs to reflect on its artistic decisions. I quite like musicals at the Royal Opera House – Sweeney Todd was great, for example – but there are plenty out there that can satisfy better than this one. If this piece cannot stand up for itself behind the proscenium, and requires instead this additional intrusion into the auditorium and foyers of the theatre in order to give it a head-wind, it is probably not worth putting on this particular stage. Yes, it’s all probably just a bit of fun; they’re probably just making a point about the ubiquitous presence of celebrity publicity: well, it wasn’t needed (especially for those of us that followed their publicity machine on Twitter…)
I do give them a ‘bravo’ for getting this hype going, for seeing it through, for bringing opera into wider discussion, and for getting some positive buzz and celebration into the air. And I respect and admire the real fervour and determination that everyone on stage and in the pit so evidently brought to the endeavour, especially as they are artists that I admire for such commitment and integrity. I just wish – oh, how I wish! – that the piece had justified the effort, let alone the hype.
POSTSCRIPT: And the Telegraph gave it five stars. I’m reminded of Tom Lehrer’s response on hearing that Kissinger had won the Nobel Peace Prize…