This was not a normal evening's opera at The Royal Opera House, neither a normal world premiere. When, for example, Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice was given its first performance here over eight years ago, there was a ripple in the press about one or two celebrities wanting tickets. Tonight's show was attended by an international media phalanx and a more credible stream of celebrity interest, from the Zappaphile Mighty Boosh to Yoko Ono. The tumultuous reception for this energetic and ultra-contemporary piece was flying around the globe via Twitter almost before the BBC could broadcast a composed report. A short but concentrated publicity sprint has paid dividends with a high impact, maximum buzz reception of a loud, witty and splashy show. It's difficult to see how the run might not succeed.
This is just as well, as I suspect the piece's natural shelf life is extremely limited. Like the media-baiting culture it satirises the opera is disposable culture, cavorting wildly in a dance of obfuscating razzmatazz, flooding the senses, bypassing the brain. The first act is exemplary in this with Turnage's restless, dynamic score using just the right level of pastiche to pimp the jokes in Richard Thomas initially brilliant libretto. There were more laughs in the first ten minutes of Anna Nicole than during the whole of the BAFTA Awards ceremony in this same space less than a week ago.
After the laughter, pathos. Or that's what you'd expect. But Thomas and Turnage just keep transliterating the surface detail of Anna Nicole's life and death from print and TV to the opera stage. After the inflated, tipped-over-the-edge (, smug) postmodernist romp of the first act, the ideas dry up, and quickly. The balance of the piece shifts with a sort of glazed inevitability. Thomas' hyper-Richard Curtis-style profanity, which overstays its welcome, is replaced with unmemorable, repetitive textual wallpaper. Turnage's music steps into the foreground but drifts without a binding, focusing libretto. Somewhere from Bernstein's West Side Story is silhouetted in the score, another expertly appropriated cultural echo but, as we know, an echo needs a hollow chamber. Only Richard Jones' design-led direction, hitherto a discreet but essential partner in the show, rescues the final act with a series of surreal camera-headed media anonymes - not judging, just looking.
The piece ends like the life of its protagonist and like the news-cycle span of its target - by running out of energy. I wasn't at all moved, despite being uncomfortably entertained.