Westbroek, Bickley; Finley, Oke; Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Pappano. Production: R. Jones. Opus Arte OA 1054 D (DVD) or OA BD7088 D (Blu-ray), 120 mins. (opera), 9 mins. (bonus), subtitled
There has been a long-standing fascination in the arts, dating back at least as far as Weill and Brecht's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, with the American obsession for money, fame and over-indulgence at the cost of everything else.
This theme is illustrated with stark clarity in the life of Anna Nicole Smith (1967–2007). Smith escaped a dead-end, trailer-trash life in small-town Texas by turning into a stripper, becoming a Playboy Playmate of the Year and marrying elderly oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II. His death instigated a struggle over his estate between Smith and Marshall's son that continued for years, even after her own death. Along the way, she modeled for Guess, appeared to generally unfavorable reviews as a film and television actress and ultimately starred in The Anna Nicole Smith Show (2002–04), the primogenitor of self-promoting reality television programs. With the guidance of her lawyer/lover/costar Howard K. Stern, Smith exploited every aspect of her life, from the birth of her daughter, which was sold as a pay-per-view event, to the death of her son, which was announced to print and broadcast tabloids with photos of the deceased being cradled by his mother. And when Smith herself died five months later of a drug overdose, Stern sent around photos of her vomit-covered corpse.
Composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, who has two previous and highly successful operas to his credit, and librettist Richard Thomas, of Jerry Springer: The Opera fame, make a winning team, fashioning a compelling tragedy from this sordid story in the tradition of grand opera.
Anna Nicole conveys the fundamentals of Smith's biography, though some parts are distorted or fictionalized for dramatic effect. Turnage is well schooled in modernist compositional techniques. The marvel is the degree to which he is able to weave elements of jazz, rock and American pop, as well as television music, into his work while strongly retaining his own musical identity. His music here is often brash and blaring, as befits the subject. The arias tend to be brief and integrated into an unbroken texture with the more narrative, active music. Turnage can be lyrical, but he usually favors a tough, unsentimental ambience. Thomas's libretto contains clever rhymes and decent one-off jokes; some lapses into strings of vulgarities overstay their usefulness. At such moments, the members of the creative team come across as snot-nosed British wunderkinds titillated at their would-be punkish audacity.
This DVD release was filmed during the opera's premiere performances earlier this year at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The cast features an embarrassment of riches. In her first major role in English, Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek offers a completely believable portrait of Anna Nicole Smith. She is crass but vaguely charming in the early scenes, manipulative and self-serving at the height of Smith's career, and almost a sympathetic character by the very end. A high point is her final aria, in which Smith curses the American Dream she has so relentlessly pursued and exploited. Anna Nicole's mother, ably depicted by Susan Bickley, participates in the action but also functions a bit like a Greek chorus. Gerald Finley, as always, brings his character vividly to life; my one complaint is that he seems a bit too wholesome and charismatic for Howard K. Stern. As J. Howard Marshall II, Alan Oke, appropriately enough, makes the viewer's skin crawl. The fine supporting cast includes Grant Doyle as Anna Nicole's first husband, Allison Cook as the stripper Blossom and Peter Hoare in a bang-up performance as Larry King. Antonio Pappano leads the cast, chorus and orchestra — joined on this occasion by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, jazz guitarist John Parricelli and Steely Dan drummer Peter Erskine — in a stellar performance. The production, directed by Richard Jones, with sets by Miriam Buether and costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, is fittingly gaudy and over the top.
Is Anna Nicole Smith America's Violetta? Definitely not. Perhaps a closer analogy would be to regard her as America's Manon — one who substitutes potato chips, cowboy boots and silicone implants for panniers and stacked coiffures. Regardless, this operatic assessment of her life is both thorough and thought-provoking. It won't leave you feeling uplifted, but it is entertaining.
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