Anna Nicole - Royal Opera House, 17 February 2011 (world premiere)
After weeks of sustained hype, the like of which the Royal Opera House has never seen, the most impressive thing about the Anna Nicole show is its polish.
Richard Jones's splashy, cartoonish production is Vegas-perfect. It catches the eye and tells the story, in a series of tightly-focussed interviews to camera. The orchestra plays immaculately (so far as I could tell on a first-time listen) for Pappano and the cast is unsurpassable from top to bottom.
Eva-Maria Westbroek's brassy confidence and Texas vowels are as convincing as her eerie physical resemblance to the opera's subject - several less worldly members of the audience (including the odd reviewer) imagined it was Anna Nicole Smith's image they saw plastered on everything from walls to statues (photos above and below) on opening night.
From Alan Oke's gleefully demented J.Howard Marshall down to the lusty voices of the chorus, you couldn't fault the performances. Even the briefly-seen pole dancers were mind-bogglingly talented - and comprehensively clothed, in case you're wondering. Outrage was confined to the sweariest libretto in town, a source of boundless hilarity to many in the audience who looked old enough to know better.
Generous rehearsal time has resulted in a slick show, with even the tiniest details refined (a catheter bag on the old man's wheelchair disappeared after dress rehearsal because - clunk - it wasn't attached to him). And check out the cheekily-illustrated floors on the curtain call photos below. I spotted only one small detail that had escaped their attention - J.Howard could never have shopped for the Jimmy Choos he sings about (as any woman with a fashion bone in her body knows, J.Howard died in 1995 and the Jimmy Choo brand didn't start until 1996) but I guess that's one of the drawbacks when an all-male team confront this sort of subject.
As for the opera itself - that's a different matter. My neighbour, a seasoned operagoer, summed up the problem. "You wouldn't buy the CD, would you?"
It begins promisingly enough, as Eva-Maria croons a bluesy "I wanna blow you all....a kiss". But it soon settles into a sort of inoffensive jazzy chugging background music, a bit Bernstein in its American colour, a bit Stravinsky in its knowing poaching from Mahler, Mendelssohn, Purcell and the golden age of disco.
The best musical bit by far is a sort of intermezzo in the second act, where the music twists and turns with wit and invention. The stage picture here is a slowly unfurling poster charting the ten years after the death of her elderly husband and her massive weight gain, years she spent largely out of the public eye.
This seems to me the ripest part of Smith's biography for dramatic intervention. What happened in those ten years to turn her from a successful glamour model/bit part actress with a claim on a multi-million fortune into a drugged, bloated, unemployable figure of fun? There's your journey, there's your real opera. But it's untouched.
Instead, Turnage and Thomas have pasted together inconsequential episodes in a fast food store, a strip joint, a plastic surgeon's office, a hedonistic party, as evidence of Anna Nicole's intention to 'rape' (in disturbing man-talk) the American Dream. Susan Bickley as her mother forms a stirring one-woman chorus of disapproval. As a satire on American consumerism, it works, but I'm far from sure opera is the best medium for this kind of verbal, conceptual humour. There are laughs, sure, and spectacle, plenty, but the characters never develop any internal life. Even the brilliant and subtle Gerald Finley, playing Anna Nicole's dubious lawyer/agent, remains a cipher, his talents unexploited. Though the final half hour gets more serious, with the death of her son and finally Anna Nicole herself, singing as she zips herself into a body bag, we haven't found out enough about her to really care.
Lots of photos below (thanks Michael and Fiona!).
The curtain was replaced for the occasion by a new pink one:
The press cameras shoved forward at the end of the night to grab some footage: