A major event in the operatic calendar, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera, to a libretto by Richard Thomas based on the life and death of the American celebrity Anna Nicole Smith, debuts at Covent Garden.
Sarah Fahie, Alan Oke, Eva-Marie Westbroek and Damien Millar in Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
On similar lines to Berg’s Lulu, it charts the rise from nowhere of this modern femme fatale - act I closes with the visual vulgarity of her wedding to the billionaire J Howard Marshall II - followed by her descent into lawsuits, weight problems and a drug induced death. A satire on the modern cult of celebrity and one of its highest flying victims, the narrative is sharply presented by Jones in his familiar comic-grotesque style. Miriam Buether’s sets and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes move back and forth from trashiness to would-be chic with sassy ease.
If only the material itself were stronger. Thomas’s text, though, is banal, offering the characters no more than a cartoonish one-dimensionality and presenting the action in a sequence of cliches. At his best, a major talent, Turnage here seems content to set the libretto without giving it the resonance or ambiguity that might have humanised it or deepened its moral outlook. The style blends various pop/jazz idioms into a classical frame, but the parodies are unmemorable and little of the score registers with distinction. Ultimately, and disappointingly, it’s an evening that rarely rises above the cheap-laugh potential of its subject.
Remarkable, though, is Eva-Maria Westbroek’s presentation of Anna Nicole, wearing her tawdriness with flair, and Alan Oke’s J Howard Marshall II, who comes over, rather surprisingly, as the most sympathetic character in a heartless piece.