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14 Sep 2014

Anna Nicole, back with a bang!

It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Mark Anthony Turnage : Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House, London 13th September 2014

A review by Colin Clarke


My initial impression of the performance on February 17, 2011 was somewhat disappointing. Mark Anthony Turnage's opera is funny, yes, deliberately and ostentatiously rude. It subverts everything traditional opera stands for in its glitzy celebration of the vacuous, but on first acquaintance it seemed disappointing, if only because Turnage's previous output had been so impressive.

Time has been kind, or perhaps it is just that on repeated experience more presents itself to the listener. At the time of its premiere, Anna Nicole garnered far more media attention than your run-of-the-mill contemporary opera generally receives. Proximity in time of the events portrayed played a huge part, of course, and Turnage, , composer of the acclaimed Greek and Three Screaming Popes, had a reputation to live up to.

But the music in Anna Nicole is not all that shocking. Rather, it is slickness in sound, a demonstration of just how talented Turnage is. That slickness was rendered magnificently by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under Antonio Pappano, not a conductor one associates with new music or big band sound, jazz and showy choruses, but that just adds to the joy of the experience. Turnage's famous references to jazz and popular music heard within the umbrella of his contemporary style are there, but so are full-scale musical numbers (a memorable chorus on the subject of “tits”, for example - and why not?, They are, after all, central to Anna's story). There are also clear references to Copland, causing the audience's musical instincts to veer Statesward. It is all superbly constructed. Turnage's inspiration seems to flow more freely in the second act, but one can't help but wonder if that impression might be stood on its head by another three-year gap before the Royal Opera House stages it again. Whatever the case, Turnage's orchestration is masterly, with textures, sometimes complex, clear as crystal. He handles his problematic subject matter beautifully - so that it all seems so natural that Anna Nicole giving birth would be on Pay-Per-View. Talk show host Larry King makes an appearance (wonderfully taken here by Peter Hoare).

Many of the roles are reprised with singers from the original production, with one major change: the part of the lawyer, Stern, was originally taken in impressive, confident style by Gerald Finley, here replaced by American baritone Rod Gilfry (Gilfry has also sung the role for New York City Opera). It is not a particularly happy substitution. Gilfry does not have Finley's presence, and while his voice is good, it does not have that special individuality of Finley's.characterization.

The one role which surely could not have been substituted is intact, and for that we must be thankful: Eva-Maria Westbroek returns as the gal herself, telling the story of waitress turned billionairess via marriage to a man vastly older in years than herself and the ensuing wranglings after J. Howard Marshall's demise. Westbroek has effectively made the role her own, so much so that it seems impossible to imagine anyone else in it. Vocally she was in superb form, clearly having a ball and yet conveying all the pathos of the work's final stages. The piece ends with Anna Nicole zipping herself into a bodybag ! . In terms of pure stamina this role is an achievement; Westbroek realizes there is a terrific amount to Anna Nicole, and gives her all.

Almost as important a role as the titular role is Anna Nicole's husband, J. Howard Marshall II. Alan Oke is no stranger to contemporary music (he sang Hiereus for the Royal Opera's staging of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur, for example), and he seems entirely at home in Turnage's writing and on-stage demands. He is absolutely believable as the old man who wants love, yet also wants a stereotype. The parallels between Anna Nicole and Marilyn Monroe are inescapable.

The part of Anna Nicole's mother, Virgie, is once more taken by the supremely experienced Susan Bickley. We feel her pain, and become fascinated by her character, and by what Turnage leaves unspoken. It was wonderful to see the commanding Rebecca Du Pont Davies once more amongst the cast, here as Aunt Kay. All of the smaller roles are taken with aplomb, with Andrew Rees' Doctor Yes as particularly noteworthy. Despite the clear central character, there is also a real feel of ensemble opera about this piece. Perhaps the large-scale choral numbers, impeccably delivered on this occasion, contribute to this.

Richard Jones' production is faultless, as are the sometimes cartoony set designs of Miriam Buether. A gaudy display of tastelessness moves straight through the comedic to the sad, while dancers with television camera for heads remind us about the superficiality of our media-driven society. On one memorable occasion these “cameras” overwhelm us, over-populating the stage. Anna Nicole's life is not her own (again, that Pay-Per-View birth seems so telling). This is a major achievement. Anna Nicole's marriage might have been controversial, but there is a true marriage of minds in Mark-Anthony Turnage and his expert librettist, Richard Thomas. I look forward to the next revival …

Colin Clarke

Cast and production information:

Eva-Maria Westbroek: Anna Nicole; Susan Bickley: Virgie, Anna’s mother; Jeremy White: Daddy Hogan, Anna’s father; Rod Gilfry: Stern; Rebecca De Pont Davies: Aunt Kay; Wynne Evans: Mayor of Mexia; Damian Thantrey: Deputy Mayor of Maxia ; Loré Luxenberg: Shelley; Grant Doyle: Billy; Alan Oke: J. Howard Marshall II; Andrew Rees: Dr Yes; Andrew Gilbert: Young Daniel; Young Daniel: Mungo Reoch; Dominic Rowntree: Teenage Daniel; Peter Hoare: Larry King (A Television Journalist). Sir Antonio Pappano, conductor. Richard Jones, director.

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