Anna Nicole, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, February 2011

This is an opera for today’s celebrity culture, where parts of the media, eager for salacious details, are happy to pick on anyone available. But Anna Nicole Smith was not just anyone — she worked as a stripper and snagged an 89 year-old billionaire, J. Howard Marshall I, though it’s said they never lived together. He died in 1995, fourteen months after their wedding, and Anna Nicole herself died in 2007, aged 39. The contest over his will, however, is still alive and has now reached the US Supreme Court.

The marriage to Marshall

Act I of this new opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage tells of Anna’s life up to the wedding with Howard Marshall, including her first marriage, but it starts with her as a sex symbol, singing, “I want to blow you all — blow you all —— a kiss”. And those are also her last words before she dies, riddled with drugs, following her son, who died of a drug overdose. Almost at the start the cameras appear, cleverly shown as heads of performers in opaque black body stockings. At first there are two, but by the end there is nothing but cameras, and Anna herself. Then, finally, she too is covered in black and the lights go out.

Anna Nicole, Stern and the new baby, all photos by Bill Cooper

Act I was deliberately tacky, but Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole carried it off well, looking gorgeous. Then she had a boob job, which did not improve her appearance, and by the end of Act II she looked bloated, which was of course the intention. Alan Oke was suitably frail as old man Marshall, and Gerald Finley gave a strong performance as Anna’s lawyer and third husband, Stern. He was the one promoting her, and had the garish idea of filming the birth of her new baby — his baby he thought — so that it will be broadcast as ‘pay per view’. But as she tells him later, “The baby’s not yours!” Indeed Anna had many lovers, but that is one thing that didn’t quite come over. She must have been a very sexy lady, yet the sexuality on stage was very stylised and lacked allure. That may have been intentional, showing an entirely materialistic attitude to life, alleviated in her case only at the very end as she shows real emotion. There is, however, one thread of sensible humanity running through the opera in the form of Anna’s mother, superbly sung and portrayed by Susan Bickley. She and Eva-Maria Westbroek formed excellent focal points for Turnage’s music, which was remarkably melodious, with its jazz elements reminiscent of Kurt Weill.

The production itself, by Richard Jones, is nothing if not colourful — even the Royal Opera House curtains were replaced by pink ones with Anna Nicole motifs, and there were photographs of her around the balconies and above the stage. The theme is of course tackiness, and the libretto by Richard Thomas pulls no punches in terms of coarse language. Perhaps there is something thrilling about defiance of conventional decorum, and as old man Marshall says, “Don’t grow old with grace. Grow old with disgrace”. The audience loved it, judging by the enthusiasm of the first night. Whether this success will last when the Royal Opera House is no longer pulling out the stops to promote it, remains to be seen, but Turnage’s music has a strong rhythmic pulse, and is well-served by Antonio Pappano’s conducting.

There are six performances in total, ending on March 4 — for more details click here.

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