This is the first revival of Mark-Anthony Turnage and Jerry Springer The Opera composer Richard Thomas’ sexy, insalubrious and downright scandalous opera Anna Nicole. Well that’s how it’s sold anyway. Thomas’ libretto still bites and Turnage’s music still lovingly mingles jazz and classical sounds but now it all feels as empty as Nicole’s voluminous boobs; this is one opera that hasn’t aged well.
Or perhaps it was never as promising as people thought. Much like it’s star, there’s a pervasive feeling that the material just isn’t good enough here. Nicole may have wanted to be Marilyn Monroe but she wasn’t. She was an ordinary woman who tried to become extraordinary and failed. Of course you feel sorry for her, but the stakes feel lower because this could have happened to anyone; the Greeks knew you needed a hero before people would care about their fall.
There’s much to enjoy in Richard Jones’ bubble gum production though. Miriam Buether’s marshmallow set plays with perspective to nightmarish effect, referencing pop artists like Jeff Koons in her pink temple to American consumerism. Thomas is at his best when he takes the sequined gloves off. Hearing the phrase cunt-bucket in the Royal Opera House still gives a naughty kick and there should have been more of these subversive moments within what is nonetheless a very funny text.
Jones’ visuals are stunning and there are some gorgeous set pieces, all fake tits, booze, pills, pole dancers and wide eyed Bambies. As Anna Nicole Eva-Maria Westbroek throws herself hook line and sinker into this tacky calamity. She underscores her vocals with an American drawl that colours even her most beautiful areas with aural dirt. Alan Oke’s billionaire octogenarian J. Howard Marshall II is suitably randy, defiant and decrepit, while Rod Gilfry oozes corruptive sleaze as Anna’s long term companion and lawyer Howard Stern. As her beloved son Daniel, Jason Broderick sings a dreamy drug induced coma number with stunning purity, slowly clouding his voice to reflect the toxic cocktail seeping through his veins.
Turnage’s score feels a little hamstrung by its vacuous subject matter, short sharp bursts of sound and musical sections are unable to conjure up any real emotional response in what, for all it’s throbbing jazzy inspiration, is a cold piece. But there are lush periods, such as the interlude between Act 2 and 3, which see all the threads of this post-modern pop culture opera come together and hint at what this trashy adventure could have been.
The narrative becomes more compelling in the third act, which examines Nicole’s addiction. A satirical take on a Larry King interview is superb, packing a powerfully condemning punch to those who watch delightedly from the safety of our comfy seats even as it encourages us to do so. If only more of it had the same impact, instead you leave feeling – as Anna Nicole herself did – disappointed.