Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas. Stage director Richard Jones, conductor Antonio Pappano. Directed for the screen by Francesca Kemp. Commissioned by the Royal Opera Company (London). DVD by Opus Arte, 2011. In the title role Eva Maria Westbroek.
This is a truly accomplished piece of operatic theatre. There is not a boring or unnecessary moment, which isn’t a small thing in a production of this size (the credits in the booklet list 27 roles, plus the ROH chorus and dancers).
The only reservation I had about the work is that it continues the long operatic tradition of looking closely (too closely) at a disintegrating, suffering woman who dies at the end. Yes, the work is a commentary on that tradition, but it also comfortably belongs to it. The key creators are all men, again: the composer, the librettist, the stage director and the conductor.
That aside – if in fact that could ever be put aside – the opera is a complete dramatic, textual and musical success. It unfolds the story of Anna Nicole Smith’s life chronologically, but it also undermines it with nonlinear intrusions, characters contesting each other’s narratives, and everybody performing rather than living their lives for the benefit of the members of the media that never leave the stage. Apart from the chorus, who are an army of awfully dressed anchormen and women and fancy themselves the public opinion, there are the two reporters who come close with their mikes for many of the solos, and later in the opera the silent black cameras moved around gracefully by the dancers. “That didn’t happen”, says often the character of Anna Nicole’s mother (Susan Bickley) upon hearing daughter’s recollections; the character of the lawyer (Gerald Finley) and AN’s final liaison comes in before his time, meddles in various scenes, threatens to sue, and has to be asked to leave by other characters. Anna Nicole’s violent ex and her toothless cousin who’s begging for the money for the new denture crash the wedding. But the story pushes on no matter; from the early days in Mexia, Texas, to the low-paying jobs type Wal Mart, to her first marriage best forgotten, to the lap dancing and strip bars where she seeks to end her penury, to the breast enhancement clinic, to the billionaire husband, his death, the long court process to claim his money, the new lawyer husband and reality TV stardom, her son’s death and the addiction to pain-killers.
Alongside the knowingness and countless postmodern winks, there is never any doubt as to where the work stands regarding the sources of the tragic in the story and the agents of Anna Nicole Smith’s demise. It is a clearly political work, with many moments of brutal Brechtian outbursts of truth-telling. Eg. sings Susan Bickley as Anna Nicole is putting on her wedding gown: “In the east the burka, in the West the thong. Wake up, women, dumb bitches, throw off your chains! Or at least get rid of the pimp!” In another scene, Westbroek: “American Dream, American Dream, I’m gonna rape that goddamn American Dream. I’m gonna tear it open and lap up the cream. I’ll feed y’all Rohypnol, invade you, date-rape you, and when I’m done you’ll scream for more… American Dream.”
It’s also a laugh-out-loud comedy that mocks not so much Anna Nicole as the enablers and spectators of her condition.
The libretto is exquisite, and it’s obvious that Richard Thomas and Mark-Anthony Turnage both love language and its innate musicality. The words “A Jimmy Choo shoe” uttered with a sense of wonder by the young Smith are taken up by the composer, who gives the words a short song and dance. When the son dies, his last aria sung from inside the unzipped body bag consists of nothing but words for pharmaceutical products sung dreamily to (“Valium Prozac Seconal Adderall, Ambien Ativan Percocet tramadol, Xanax Zoloft morphine methadone” etc.)
The score itself is always in motion, constantly changing depending on the dramatic context, adopting a huge vocabulary, from banjo bluegrass-y motifs in a Texan fried chicken joint to the big band Hollywood film music to Wagner and Verdi.
There’s isn’t a bad performer on cast, and the universal gushing that the Dutch soprano Eva Maria Westbroek had received for the role is all deserved. She made the starlet into a warm-hearted, air-headed subaltern who never really stood a chance with the American Dream business. Those women of similar background who did stand a chance, like Marilyn Monroe, were only ever two bad decisions away from Anna Nicole Smith’s life. “I did a lot of research about Anna as a person,” says Westbroek in the DVD interview. “The more we saw of her, the more I totally fell in love with her. She’s a lovely girl.” A sentiment to live (a life of feminist solidarity) by.
Eva-Maria Westbroek in a scene from the ROH opera Anna Nicole, February 2011. Photograph by Tristram Kenton.