Friday, 18 February 2011

Anna Nicole, Royal Opera

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.

What is Anna Nicole for? It's no bad thing for the Royal Opera to put on such a modern, iconoclastic show. It's certainly a more constructive version of the intermittent galas that such institutions have, replacing a dusty pat on its collective back with a cheeky public flash on Bow Street. I don't think it's satire either. No-one gets demonised during the piece (with the possible exception of the oleaginous plastic surgeon) although there's a lot of mocking. I suspect that this is because no character can be said to have done anything wrong. Pity on its own isn't what substantive art is about though. There's no transaction. I don't feel responsible or galvanised watching Anna Nicole. However I do feel rather embarrassed, especially for American culture without which the fun of this piece and production wouldn't exist. Americana gets it in the neck without trial. Jones' design nod towards the reality-exploitation culture of the UK, in using a chair from the seventh series of Big Brother (right and below) to open the show is quickly forgotten.

This sense of let-down isn't for want of trying. Eva-Maria Westbroek's assumption of Anna is quite marvellous. The thunderous reception at her curtain call was entirely warranted for a complete performance of punchy and elastic singing, dancing and multiple costume changes. And incessant smiling. Alan Oke, though far too vibrant as the decrepit J Howard Marshall II, sings terrifically, as does Gerald Finley (though I found his character notably 2 dimensional - a legal concession?). The one character who might have made a difference to the two-dimensions of front-or-behind camera was Anna Nicole's mother Virgie. The tremendous Royal Opera asset Susan Bickley sang well but was fettered by the role. A large cast of tapering contribution all sing extremely well right down to the magnificent chorus who open the show, a uniform of character, sound and energy which sets the pace for all who follow. There's a fair bit of character in the pit too, if constrained and a mite over-scored. The real interest in the music is led by two genuine celebrities of the night, Peter Erskine and John Paul Jones who, with guitarist John Parricelli, pop up as an on-stage band in the second act.

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.

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