18 Feb 2011
Anna Nicole, London
From the sublime (Parsifal, the night before) to the not-even-ridiculous.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
From the sublime (Parsifal, the night before) to the not-even-ridiculous.
It would be difficult to come up with a more contrasting work than Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, not simply, nor even principally, from a gendered standpoint. Written in collaboration with librettist, Richard Thomas, we have a new opera, which, as almost everyone by now will be aware, is based upon the life of Anna Nicole Smith. Having spoken to a considerable number of people over what must be approaching a year, I can only recall one having heard of her, but apparently she is more celebrated in other quarters. A woman who physically suffered and financially gained from excessive breast enhancement, Smith ‘apparently’ died from a drug overdose. Such is not the inspiration for Anna Nicole, in that little effort seems to have been expended to produce an independent artwork; rather we have something akin to a report of what the lawyers have permitted Thomas and Turnage to reproduce. Apparently changes had to be made very late in the day indeed, which may or may not be connected with the setting aside in January of this year of Howard K Stern’s conviction for providing Smith with controlled substances.
The music is more or less entirely without interest. One barely notices it, beyond dubious pastiche, in the first act. At best, it aurally resembles sub-sub-Broadway Weill, with hints of even further sub-sub-Berg. Closed forms are the order of the day, but they come across as short-winded, formulaic even, rather than polemical. Weirdly selected near-bits of Stravinsky are thrown in, for instance, passages for woodwind almost straight out of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. And a parody that is barely a parody, of the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music, covers over the cracks for Anna Nicole’s wedding to Old Man Marshall. The music for the second act, supposedly more tragic in tone, is mawkishly sentimental and, like everything else about the act, sounds over extended by at least half an hour. (Both acts last for about an hour.) Puccini might just have made something of this; Turnage cannot. Moreover, the writing for chorus, which makes up so much of the first act, suddenly disappears. Doubtless the claim will be that that ever so subtly marks a tightening of tragic focus. However, like the increasingly tired feel of the sets — even Richard Jones and his design team can only do so much with such material — the impression is of an attempt to spin out something that has long since been exhausted.
The jokey-cum-profane libretto is worse, attention-seeking and utterly banal. One tires of its childish provocations quickly, indeed within a few seconds. Incessant swearing tires rather than shocks. Perhaps someone finds a litany of alleged synonyms for breasts amusing; perhaps that would be the same person who has a real-life interest in this sorry tale. Nothing is remotely erotic; the opera is more akin to The Benny Hill Show. Anna Nicole is not, to put it mildly, Lulu. The legal wranglings arising from the deaths of Marshall and Smith might have made useful dramatic fodder, but these are not explored. Perhaps it as well, for one cannot imagine, to put it mildly, Anna Nicole becoming The Makropulos Case.
I am suspicious of any work that seems designed to disallow almost any adverse criticism. Stravinsky accomplished that magnificently in The Rake’s Progress; yet, as so often, he seems to be a glorious exception. Anna Nicole is not, etc. If one complains about the ‘musical’ element, one will doubtless be assailed as ‘élitist’, as if somehow wishing for the best were something of which to be ashamed. Likewise all the popular culture elements. If one questions the banality of the libretto, not only ‘élitism’ but prudishness will also be alleged. Far from it, in my case: I find much of what is said straightforwardly puerile, and not in the slightest shocking, let alone hilarious. (An audience that laughs uproariously at crudely rhyming ‘profanities’ may need to get out a little more.) Puerility will then doubtless be part of ‘the point’, but one can say that about anything. This seems merely trashy rather than ‘about trashiness’. Question the musical language, insofar as it may exist, and one will be accused of ideological ‘élitism’: the horror — the ghost of Darmstadt!
Alan Oke as J. Howard Marshall, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole, Gerald Finley as Stern and, in the background, Marshall’s family (from left to right: Grant Doyle, Loré Lixenberg, Jeremy White and Rebecca de Pont Davies)
Whether dealing with music or text, true characterisation approaches zero; everything is simply a matter of plot and situation. Is that the point? Again, if so, ‘the point’ is surely wrong. Certain works can operate very well, even achieve greatness, without conventional characterisation at their heart, instantiating in its place an idea. However, Anna Nicole, is not, to put it mildly, Fidelio. Not only Stern but even Anna Nicole herself seems a mere caricature, without the caricature making a dramatic point. Nor is there anything of interest in the way the story is told. Hopes rise when Anna Nicole’s mother, Virgie, dissents from the way Stern tells a part of the story — the death of Anna Nicole’s son, Daniel — and it seems as though we might be in for some sort of re-telling from a different perspective. It is really just a matter, however, of recounting her dissent. Anna Nicole is not, to put it mildly, The Mask of Orpheus.
The opera — it actually seems more like an attempt at a musical — is also offensively and, frankly, childishly anti-American. Many of the rest of us have noticed that capitalism is not a solely American phenomenon. The use of ‘American’ accents, sometimes more successfully Texan or indeed American than at others, is odd at best. We do not ask singers in an opera with a French setting to sing as if they were Inspector Clouseau. It all seems intended to make fun of a cultural setting of which the writers seem to have little more knowledge and understanding than many of the rest of us. Imagine the horror that would rightly be expressed, were someone to decide to do something similar about India, Zimbabwe, Argentina, or indeed just about anywhere else. This is, with apologies to Edward Said, Occidentalism that is not even interesting.
Everything, moreover, seems to hang on the fact that this is ‘based on a true story’. We seem to be led to believe — and I tend to believe it myself — that it would be of no interest to anyone, if the story were presented fictionally. At best, then, the work becomes reportage, concerning an unfortunate soul to be cruelly mocked; for those of us who have little or no interest in the life story of the aforesaid unfortunate soul, it is not clear what the point might be. At least an opera such as John Adams’s Nixon in China deals with a political event of considerable importance, whilst remaining musically negligible. In ‘historical’ operas worth their salt, the ‘history’ is not the sole point, but a spur to artistic invention. Anna Nicole is not, to put it mildly, L’incoronazione di Poppea. Perhaps worst of all, the treatment of Smith herself and, still more, her son seems straightforwardly exploitative. Is this a proper way to memorialise Daniel Wayne Smith? (I am unsure even whether to mention him here.) Does he deserve to be served up as entertainment? These people’s predicament is not, despite the presence of a press pack, really explored, let alone analysed; it is just retold.
Gerald Finley as Stern and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole
Jones does what he can, with great attention to detail, and colourful sets, especially during the first half. Moreover, the opera is truly cast from strength, whether with respect to members of the Royal Opera Chorus, such as the Four Lap Dancers and the Meat Rack Quartet, or the starring roles. The cast is huge, putting one in mind of another recent Jones production, though Anna Nicole is not, to put it mildly, The Gambler. Yet the unsubtle amplification, whilst ensuring that every word can be heard, crystal-clear, begins to tire as much as the melodramatic antics of the plot. The ever-reliable Susan Bickley makes the best of what she is given as Virgie. Alan Oke proves frighteningly credible in age as Old Man Marshall and sings as well as we have come to expect — which is very well indeed. Eva-Maria Westbroek gives a truly bravura performance in the title role; the lack of characterisation is not hers. If Westbroek’s gifts were wasted, then I do not know what the term would be for the squandering of Finley’s resources. Antonio Pappano seemed to have the measure of the score, marshalling his forces with tight rhythmic control. The orchestra played with verve, as well drilled as one could imagine. To what end, though?
Was the increasing high pitch of the promotion — it seems to have worked, for performances have sold out — possibly related to a fear that the music and text were so weak? One has to take risks with new works; it is heartening that the Royal Opera was willing to do so. Let us hope that the next new work will prove more fruitful, and perhaps — dare I suggest it? — take the world, not just this country, as its compositional oyster. Previous commissions include works by Henze, Goehr, Birtwistle, and Berio. Just think of the time — I wish I could have been there — when Stockhausen’s Donnerstag received its premiere at Covent Garden. Better luck next time, I suppose…