Opera review: ‘Anna Nicole’ premieres in London’s Royal Opera House

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London’s hi-toned Royal Opera House was festooned with Anna Nicole Smith on Thursday night for the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Anna Nicole.” Her image was on shopping bags placed over the heads of mannequins displaying lavish traditional opera costumes in classic Royal Opera productions. Portraits of the late, tragic, overstuffed Playboy playmate with hands supporting cleavage, diamonds galore and a big party smile, were simply everywhere.

Arts organizations in London, facing crippling cuts in government funding, are being asked to pursue private sources along the lines of the American model. But who would have thought that Royal Opera would pursue the lines of that American model?

Still, fallen, flawed femme fatales from all walks of life (including low life) have long turned on opera librettists. The heavy-breasted tabloid queen is a subject more tawdry than most, and she gets a tawdry, if entertaining, opera to match.


Turnage may have chosen more classic subjects for his previous two operas -- “Greek,” an updating of ancient tragedy, and “Silver Tassie,” an adaptation of a Sean O’Casey World War I drama -- but he regularly turns to jazz, rock and blues sources. His recent short and disappointing orchestra piece for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, “Hammered Out,” reworks a Beyonce song.

The librettist Richard Thomas is the creator, composer and co-writer of “Jerry Springer: The Opera,” which is really a musical. But just that kind of high-low fusion (confusion?) was what was clearly intended here. The director Richard Jones has a Royal Opera “Ring” production to his credit. The Dutch Wagnerian soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek is Anna. Royal Opera’s outstanding music director Antonio Pappano is in the pit. Is “Anna Nicole” a lark, a fancy-schmancy opera company letting its hair down? The glossy program book seems to suggest as much. It includes a tabloid-like graphic bio of Anna, an essay on “Two Millennia of Tragic Bimbos” by a university English professor and another essay by a breast pathologist.

The opera is based on Anna’s story, selectively told, some of it, in proper operatic fashion, imagined or downright invented. The first act is farce. A small town Texas dropout with ambitions, Anna, after a teenage marriage -- which produced a son, Daniel -- heads for Houston and gentlemen’s clubs. She gets a massive silicone breast implant and at 26 marries 89-year-old J. Howard Marshall, an oil billionaire. Playboy, Anna’s ladder to fame, is glaringly omitted (rights issues?).

This act stoops to its subject matter. Jones’ garish production is cartoonish camp. Thomas’ libretto has the short, punchy song structure of Broadway with labored rhymes (Buddha, karma/Barack Obama, for instance, or Jimmy Choo/Jimmy who?). The opera is full of wisecracks, sexual references and four-letter words. Caricatures of Texas white trash, jiggling big-breasted women and a lecherous old man abound.

Four under-developed women sing a lament for the breastless masses. Poor old-man Marshall, who seems to live for Anna’s oral sex, bemoans that one day, tomorrow never comes. When he goes, he goes in a gold lamé track suit.

But under it all is a tragic woman forced into using the only thing that she’s got. But what she’s got is artificial and the implants become her cross, leading to back problems, drugs, death. The second act is her fall. Anna gains weight. She is consumed by a legal battle with Marshall’s family for his fortune, and she is involved with her lawyer/manager/lover Howard K. Stern. She is devoted to her son, Daniel, and her dogs.


Her film career is neglected, but she appears on ‘Larry King.’ Daniel dies of an overdose just as her daughter is born, and he sings a moving aria, its text the names of narcotics and other substances. Anna sings a moving lament, in the style of Purcell. Her overdose at 39 is the end.

Destroyed by the media, she is surrounded by dancers and choristers with heads as cameras as she is zipped up in a body bag. In an instance of opera turning into real life, the London media with their cameras came running down the aisles to get all this for the late-night news and the tabloids.

Turnage’s score has its fine patches. He begins with the opening of “Hammered Out” and comfortably slips between jazz, pop and pleasingly textured instrumental riffs. Words are set to be understood. An opening chorus reminded me of the style of Leonard Bernstein’s musical/opera hybrid “Trouble in Tahiti.”

For a party scene, a pop music band (Peter Erskine, John Paul Jones and John Parricelli) fits right in for an cameo appearance. But it was not until a beguiling orchestral interlude in the second act, and too late, that ‘Anna’ finally seemed worth taking seriously.

The performances were very good. Westbroek’s Wagnerian chops served her well, her ill-fitting mammary prosthesis not so well. Baritone Gerald Finley, the intriguingly ever-smiling Stern, kept us guessing whether he was shark or truly devoted to Anna.

As Anna’s mother, Susan Bickley was all righteous indignation. Alan Oke seemed to enjoy himself as the energetic old Marshall. Peter Hoare was sort of like Larry King. The opera also includes lap top dancers, a “meat rack quartet,” a Doctor Yes and various others up to little good.


Could “Anna” come home to America? I would like to think that with the example of John Adams and Peter Sellars, Americans might object to the opera’s lack of a woman’s point of view and its general dismissal of substance. But it is the libretto’s toilet talk that will probably be a deal breaker with any major company.

[For the record: An earlier verison of this review misidentified the nationality of soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek.]

-- Mark Swed


Video: Opera world braces itself for Anna Nicole Smith

Top photo: Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole in the premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera at the Royal Opera House, London, Thursday night. Credit: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera. Below: A mannequin in Crush Bar of the Royal Opera House on Thursday. Credit: Mark Swed / Los Angeles Times.