Few contemporary operas have received such pre-performance hype and column inches in the press as The Royal Opera’s latest commission, Anna Nicole. Given all the publicity and ballyhoo surrounding the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s third opera it’ll come as no surprise that all six performances sold out well before the first night. Good news for contemporary opera? Well whatever the merits of the work, it’ll bring a new audience to The Royal Opera, but as always with these ventures whether that audience will be snapping up tickets to come and see Fidelio is a different matter altogether.
Turnage and his librettist Richard Thomas have devised a two act opera, each act is approximately 60 minutes in length and the first is considerably stronger than the second. Charting the rise of Anna Nicole from humble beginnings, via a tit-job, to marrying J Howard Marshall II, Act One races along at a suitably hectic pace. Much of it is mordantly funny and it’s here that Richard Jones’ day-glo staging is at its best.
Act Two is darker, as Anna Nicole, now a pill-popping caricature of herself, bloated and ‘otherwise engaged’ for most of the time finds the death of her son Daniel too much to bear and overdoses. The final image, of her climbing into a body bag, is a poignant one but I can’t honestly say that I’d been able to engage with her as the opera progressed, so it just left me feeling a bit cold, and the fault for that must lie with the musical idiom that Turnage deploys.
His music has always been influenced by Jazz and Blues, but given the episodic nature of the work I had expected a stronger musical voice to emerge. For the most of the night the music chugs along as a mere backdrop to what’s happening on stage and I think the main problem is that Anna Nicole doesn’t know what it wants to be. It lacks the ‘tunes’ to be called a musical, but lacks the emotional depth to be called an opera so it remains floundered in a no-man’s land somewhere in between the two. In every opera the music needs to propel the drama, and create the drama but that doesn’t happen here. It’s the morning after the night before and the only music that I can recall is the opening chorus, which is surprising.
Having said that the playing of the orchestra under music director Antonio Pappano was faultless – The Royal Opera don’t do things by half, although the much trumpeted appearance of bass guitarist John Paul Jones in the pit and on stage for the party scenes went for nought as he couldn’t be heard. Singers were amplified ‘subtly’ although the only voice that seemed to be was Eva Maria-Westbroek’s in the title role, which seemed odd as she possess the most voluminous of all the voices on stage.
Her portrayal of Anna Nicole was quite simply stunning. Not only did she sing brilliantly all evening but managed to convey all the character traits of the model turned money grabbing ‘ho’ to perfection. As ever she was a riveting stage presence, no mean feat given that she was on stage for the entire evening.
As her billionaire husband Alan Oke gave a tour de force performance whilst there was able support from Gerald Finley as the lawyer Stern, although the character remained resolutely one-dimensional, and Susan Bickley as Nicole’s mother.
The Royal Opera certainly gave Anna Nicole the best send-off possible and I found much of it laugh out loud funny but I don’t believe its operatic credentials are as strong as everyone was expecting, which is a pity, but six sold out performances can’t be bad.