Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

A sunny L'elisir d'amore at the Royal Opera House

Theresa May could do with a Doctor Dulcamara in the Conservative Cabinet: his miracle pills for every illness from asthma to apoplexy would slash the NHS bill - and, if he really could rejuvenate the aged then he’d solve the looming social care funding crisis too.

Budapest Festival Orchestra: a scintillating Bluebeard

Ravi Shankar’s posthumous opera Sukanya drew a full house to the Royal Festival Hall last Friday but the arrival of the Budapest Festival Orchestra under their founder Iván Fischer seemed to have less appeal to Londoners - which was disappointing as the absolute commitment of Fischer and his musicians to the Hungarian programme that they presented was equalled in intensity by the blazing richness of the BFO’s playing.

Sukanya: Ravi Shankar's posthumous opera

What links Franz Xaver Süssmayr, Brian Newbould and Anthony Payne? A hypothetical question for University Challenge contestants elicits the response that they all ‘completed’ composer’s last words: Mozart’s Requiem, Schubert’s Symphony No.8 in B minor (the Unfinished) and Edward Elgar’s Third Symphony, respectively.

Cavalli's Hipermestra at Glyndebourne

‘Make war not love’, might be a fitting subtitle for Francesco Cavalli’s opera Hipermestra in which the eponymous princess chooses matrimonial loyalty over filial duty and so triggers a war which brings about the destruction of Argos and the deaths of its inhabitants.

I Fagiolini's Orfeo: London Festival of Baroque Music

This year’s London Festival of Baroque Music is titled Baroque at the Edge and celebrates Monteverdi’s 450th birthday and the 250th anniversary of Telemann’s death. Monteverdi and Telemann do in some ways represent the ‘edges’ of the Baroque, their music signalling a transition from Renaissance to Baroque and from Baroque to Classical respectively, though as this performance of Monteverdi’s Orfeo by I Fagiolini and The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble confirmed such boundaries are blurred and frequently broken.

The English Concert: a marvellous Ariodante at the Barbican Hall

I’ve been thinking about jealousy a lot of late, as I put the finishing touches to a programme article for Bampton Classical Opera’s summer production of Salieri’s La scuola de' gelosi. In placing the green-eyed monster centre-stage, Handel’s Ariodante surely rivals Shakespeare’s Othello in dramatic clarity and concision, as this terrifically animated and musically intense performance by The English Concert at the Barbican Hall confirmed.

Riel Deal in Toronto

With its new production of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel, Canadian Opera Company has covered itself in resplendent glory.

Concert Introduces Fine Dramatic Tenor

On May 4, 2017, Los Angeles Opera presented a concert starring Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and her husband, Azerbaijani tenor Yusif Eyvazev. Led by Italian conductor Jader Bignamini, members of the orchestra showed their abilities, too, with a variety of instrumental selections played between the singers’ arias and duets.

COC: Tosca’s Cautious Leap

Considering the high caliber of the amassed talent, Canadian Opera Company’s Tosca is a curiously muted affair.

Schubert's 'swan-song': Ian Bostridge at the Wigmore Hall

No song in this wonderful performance by Ian Bostridge and Lars Vogt at the Wigmore Hall epitomised more powerfully, and astonishingly, what a remarkable lieder singer Bostridge is, than Schubert’s Rellstab setting, ‘In der Ferne’ (In the distance).

Stunning power and presence from Lise Davidsen

For Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen this has been an exciting season, one which has seen her make several role and house debuts in Europe and beyond, including Agathe (Der Freischutz) at Opernhaus Zürich, Santuzza (Cavalleria Rusticana) Norwegian National Opera and, just last month, Isabella (Liebesverbot) at Teatro Colón. This Rosenblatt Recital brought her to the Wigmore Hall for her UK recital debut and if the stunning power, shining colour and absolute ease that she demonstrated in a well-chosen programme of song and opera are anything to judge by, Glyndebourne audiences are in for a tremendous treat this summer, when Davidsen appears in the title role of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.

Three Rossini Operas Serias

Rossini’s serious operas once dominated opera houses across the Western world. In their librettos, the great French author Stendahl—then a diplomat in Italy and the composer’s first biographer—saw a post-Napoleonic “martial vigor” that could spark a liberal revolution. In their vocal and instrumental innovations, he discerned a similar revolution in music.

Tosca: Stark Drama at the Chandler Pavilion

On Thursday evening April 27, 2017, Los Angeles Opera presented a revival of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In 2013, director John Caird had given Angelinos a production that made Tosca a full-blooded, intense drama as well as a most popular aria-studded opera. His Floria was a dove among hawks.

San Jose’s Bohemian Rhapsody

Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.

Fine Traviata Completes SDO Season

On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.

The Exterminating Angel: compulsive repetitions and re-enactments

Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”

Dutch National Opera revives deliciously dark satire A Dog’s Heart

Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.

María José Moreno lights up the Israeli Opera with Lucia di Lammermoor

I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.

Cinderella Enchants Phoenix

At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.

LA Opera’s Young Artist Program Celebrates Tenth Anniversary

On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera]
18 Feb 2011

Anna Nicole, London

From the sublime (Parsifal, the night before) to the not-even-ridiculous.

Anna Nicole: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Old Man Marshall: Alan Oke; The Lawyer Stern: Gerald Finley; Virgie: Susan Bickley; Cousin Shelley: Loré Lixenberg; Larry King: Peter Hoare; Aunt Kay: Rebecca de Pont Davies; Older Daniel: Dominic Rowntree; Blossom: Allison Cook; Doctor: Andrew Rees; Billy: Grant Doyle; Mayor: Wynne Evans; Runner: ZhengZhong Zhou; Daddy Hogan: Jeremy White; Gentleman: Dominic Peckham; Trucker: Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts; Deputy Mayor: Damian Thantrey; Four Lap Dancers: Yvonne Barclay, Katy Batho, Amy Catt, Amanda Floyd; Four Meat Rack Girls: Kiera Lyness, Marianne Cotterill, Louise Armit, Andrea Hazell; Onstage Band: John Parricelli (guitar), John Paul Jones (bass guitar), Peter Erskine (drums). Director: Richard Jones; Set designs: Miriam Buether; Costumes: Nicky Gillibrand; Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin and D M Wood; Choreography: Aletta Collins. Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna); Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 17 February 2011.

Above: Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera

 

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!

Anna_Nicole_03.pngAlan 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.

Anna_Nicole_02.pngGerald 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…

Mark Berry

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):