Review: City Opera's Anna Nicole Tells Tabloid Saga

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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.