Review: City Opera's Anna Nicole Tells Tabloid Saga

Wednesday, September 18, 2013 - 12:26 PM

Sarah Coomes, Robert Brubaker, Sarah Joy Miller in 'Anna Nicole' Sarah Coomes, Robert Brubaker, Sarah Joy Miller in 'Anna Nicole' (Stephanie Berger)

If applause alone could cure the New York City Opera's financial ills, the company would be in the pink following Tuesday's opening of the Mark-Anthony Turnage opera Anna Nicole – and not just because this provocative British hit was some sort of fail-safe import. To judge from the 2011 DVD of the Royal Opera production, what was seen in London would have, in New York, gone the way of Jerry Springer: The Opera with a respectful but muted reception.

The same production's lumbering, heavy-handed sendup of American trash culture in London was speeded up and lightened at the Brooklyn Academy by conductor Steven Sloane with the title role transformed immeasurably by Sarah Joy Miller. The DVD has few laugh lines; the Brooklyn performance had many.

The opera itself still has its problems: This semi-surreal view of Anna Nicole Smith's rise from single motherhood to a celebrity train wreck has a druggy haziness (her geriatric billionaire husband arriving in a giant airborne chair) and conspiratorial, gleeful lack of taste (following her son's death by overdose, his body bag is temporarily unzipped so he can sing a beyond-the-grave litany of all the chemicals he ingested). Even more legit jokes – like the Houston breast-implant surgeon who analyzes the impact of size – go on too long.  

A more subtle problem: Because the Richard Thomas libretto recounts Anna Nicole's story in retrospect by having the characters interviewed by media hounds, composer Turnage isn't required to supply much dramatic immediacy in characterizing the opera's events. As it is, the score is restlessly inventive – Turnage is one of the U.K.'s best – with an orchestration that never runs out of piquant new sounds.

And as if to characterize the attention deficit syndrome of Anna Nicole's world, the music feels splintered, never stretching out with anything that's dramatically sustained until the end of Act II. Best known for symphonic works, Turnage may be an incomplete dramatist: Both acts of Anna Nicole didn't really end, but simply stopped. You also sense that the authors saw little redeeming value in Anna Nicole Smith. So is the opera the apotheosis of pointlessness?

Photo: Stephanie Berger

Much compensation came directly from the stage, especially from Sarah Joy Miller's Anna Nicole. She sang attractively (even though Turnage doesn't really ask for that) but, most important, gave the character a girlish delight in shiny, new things, much as Beverly Sills did in Massenet's Manon. The London Anna Nicole (Eva-Maria Westbroek) wore out her welcome; Miller did not.

Elsewhere, the cast often had needed Broadway pizzazz, right down to the diction-perfect chorus. Secondary roles were filled by the likes of theater veteran Mary Testa, and the more operatic cast members, such as Robert Brubaker as the geriatric billionaire and Rod Gilfrey as her lawyer, certainly know their way around the stage and sang with operatic integrity. So if anything does the trick for the City Opera, it's this. Reliable sources at the post-opera reception (where trailer-park Tater Tots were served) say that $1 million arrived on opening night.


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Comments [6]

Wozzeck from UWS

You miss the point entirely. People are critical that there is an opera about such a person. This is an invalid criticism. That is the point I am making - - and, by the way, Lulu is a GREAT OPERA.
I am saying that it was a fine opera, not a great one, because it had some terrific music and musical drama, was on a subject grand enough for opera — the demise of a great nation, and delivered its message with excitement and empathy for its main character. Yes, this opera has true compassion too. It is misguided to imply that this is an opera about "insipid" pity for Anna.
Have you seen it? if not, you should. You may be as surprised as I was.

Sep. 23 2013 06:50 PM
Marlene from nyc

Comparing Anna Nicole with Lulu - thereby giving the "ok" to do an opera about her, is not quite the answer I'm seeking to validate the opera in my mind....who says the world loves the opera Lulu???? Manon and Traviata besides having beautiful music, portrayed flawed but sincere love, whether it was true or not, they inspired compassion. Having lived through the live Anna Nicole saga for real only inspired pity. Compassion and pity are two different things. One you cannot walk away from and one you can.

Sep. 23 2013 11:18 AM
Wozzeck from UWS

I was fortunate enough to see Anna Nicole on Thursday evening. After over 30 years of attending the Met, I was surprised to find how wonderful, fresh, alive and thought-provoking this opera was -- and beautifully performed from direction and design through singing.

My husband who saw the final dress rehearsal of Eugene Onegin earlier that afternoon, was very disappointed at the performance the Met offered. Indifferent direction, a perverted ending and a lackluster performance by Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecien left him very disappointed.

Yes, it is an opera about Anna Nicole, a tawdry and sad character, but so is is Lulu, and this new opera tells us a great deal about our mindless US society and how ill-prepared it leaves our fellow human beings. It is a true tragedy.

Sep. 22 2013 09:57 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Very sad story. As for the comments about Beverly Sills girlish delight in Manon, she was usually Miss Brooklyn in most of her portrayals. Saw the production of Il Barbiere and she was far from a Spanish aristocrat. Maybe Brooklyn aristocrat. Don't get angry folks. I lived many years in Brooklyn and know about these things. Another overated icon.
As for operas based on these times, I understand Brokeback Mountain as an opera is being prepared. What's next? Honey Boo Boo and her awful mom, a toothless wonder. You would think with all the money they are making with this trash, she's get her teeth fixed. Would like to see something about Honey Boo Boo's mom and the character from Call of the Wildman getting married and the babies they would produce. No, I do not watch these programs, have the bad luck to catch some clips whilst channel surfing.

Sep. 21 2013 12:45 PM
G.S. from Long Island, NY

The whole story (esp. her son's death, I remember reading when it happened) just makes me sad.

Sep. 20 2013 12:49 PM
Brunnhilde from NYC

Steele and the NYCO Board would do well to read the article on this website regarding the Washington Opera......Their thriving and ambitious programming obviously comes from well intended, creative directors who value the art of opera and have adhered to President Kennedy's speech at the opening of the Kennedy Center.....especially the last line:
"The arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose—and it is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization."

Sep. 19 2013 12:48 PM

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