Opera: Anna Nicole



It would be fair enough to say (to borrow from the Opera and from the late Ms Anna Nicole) that the Royal Opera's Anna Nicole blew us... away on Thursday night. The performances, production and the opera was inspired.

What starts as a dig against a C-list American celebrity ends up becoming a strangely poignant opera where you feel some sympathy for the slapper. You may even begin thinking she is the Traviata of the day. That is the trouble with the arts, they can make people seem so much nicer than reality. Still if you can stomach sympathy for Anna Nicole, this cautionary tale against fame turns out to be quite a ride. Then again the real Anna Nicole was quite a ride too...


The music by Mark-Anthony Turnage is a jazz-operatic fusion that keeps things moving along nicely and seems perfectly matched to the story and subject. The libretto by Richard Thomas is often good too, although it seemed (at least in the first half) there was too much emphasis on profanities rather than anything resembling poetry or at least clever rhyming patter. I also never expected to hear so many euphemisms for breasts. Or the word "cuntalicious" sung by a chorus at the Royal Opera...

The story is kept simple and told via flashbacks from a series of tacky reporters who double as a terrific opera chorus. We first see Anna Nicole in a large gold chair that could have come from the big brother set. Her film and modelling career (for what that was worth) is omitted and the focus is on her rise to fame after leaving "the breast-less masses" and poor paying jobs to work in a strip club. It was working there she meets an 89 year old billionaire. In one of the many nice touches of this production, his arrival comes via a giant stairlift. It had the audience in hysterics. The first act ends with a marriage and so for the second act it is all downhill, as the billionaire's death, endless court cases and prescription pills start taking a toll.

The production is at its best in the second half as things get creepy and the score gets more dramatic. There are plenty of other unsettling touches in this bright production when things start to go sour. Towards the end dancers with television headdresses begin to encircle Anna, and start rummaging through her garbage.

The performances across the board are phenomenal, although with no major arias anyone is singing there it relies more on their comic and dramatic talents. Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole is simply amazing, and gives a performance of a strong yet sympathetic character. Given the audience's reaction to her on Thursday, perhaps she will be entering into the realms of the opera superstars after this turn. Alan Oke as her billionaire octogenerian husband, also gives a strong performance as a man who wants to have some fun before he is dead. Gerald Finley is good as the vilain of the piece as the laywer-come-boyfriend. And even Wynne Evans from the irritating (but strangely memorable)Go-Compare commercials is in this show.

Keeping it altogether was conductor Antonio Pappano, and it was clear that the orchestra were having a good time with it all.

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Away from the stage, there were additional nice touches that made Thursday evening a little more memorable for the world premiere of this piece. This included having the foyers Anna Nicole-ised. Every bust, statue or picture frame had Eve-Maria Westbroek's face and breasts covering them. Towards the end of the evening, the tape holding some of the photos in place was coming off and the Anna Nicole pictures began to fall away. It was a  nice little symbolic moment for a work about the overwhelming but temporary nature of pop culture.

If there were any reservations about the choice of subject matter for this opera, it is that it gives another chance for British audiences to feel smug about American culture (as if we don't get enough of that here already).  Sure England has its own answer to Anna Nicole with it's very own slapper saint Jade Goody, but she isn't as interesting as Anna Nicole. Nor does she come with global recognition. Besides her two-act opera would be confined to a reality television show and having her cervix fall out.

The show is sold out, but is bound to be repeated given the interest. A broadcast is to follow on BBC4 shortly. All involved in this show should be blown (kiss or otherwise) for their efforts... A night to remember at the Royal Opera...
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