Archive for the ‘Turnage’ Category

Anna Nicole, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, February 2011

18 February, 2011

This is an opera for today’s celebrity culture, where parts of the media, eager for salacious details, are happy to pick on anyone available. But Anna Nicole Smith was not just anyone — she worked as a stripper and snagged an 89 year-old billionaire, J. Howard Marshall I, though it’s said they never lived together. He died in 1995, fourteen months after their wedding, and Anna Nicole herself died in 2007, aged 39. The contest over his will, however, is still alive and has now reached the US Supreme Court.

The marriage to Marshall

Act I of this new opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage tells of Anna’s life up to the wedding with Howard Marshall, including her first marriage, but it starts with her as a sex symbol, singing, “I want to blow you all — blow you all —— a kiss”. And those are also her last words before she dies, riddled with drugs, following her son, who died of a drug overdose. Almost at the start the cameras appear, cleverly shown as heads of performers in opaque black body stockings. At first there are two, but by the end there is nothing but cameras, and Anna herself. Then, finally, she too is covered in black and the lights go out.

Anna Nicole, Stern and the new baby, all photos by Bill Cooper

Act I was deliberately tacky, but Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole carried it off well, looking gorgeous. Then she had a boob job, which did not improve her appearance, and by the end of Act II she looked bloated, which was of course the intention. Alan Oke was suitably frail as old man Marshall, and Gerald Finley gave a strong performance as Anna’s lawyer and third husband, Stern. He was the one promoting her, and had the garish idea of filming the birth of her new baby — his baby he thought — so that it will be broadcast as ‘pay per view’. But as she tells him later, “The baby’s not yours!” Indeed Anna had many lovers, but that is one thing that didn’t quite come over. She must have been a very sexy lady, yet the sexuality on stage was very stylised and lacked allure. That may have been intentional, showing an entirely materialistic attitude to life, alleviated in her case only at the very end as she shows real emotion. There is, however, one thread of sensible humanity running through the opera in the form of Anna’s mother, superbly sung and portrayed by Susan Bickley. She and Eva-Maria Westbroek formed excellent focal points for Turnage’s music, which was remarkably melodious, with its jazz elements reminiscent of Kurt Weill.

The production itself, by Richard Jones, is nothing if not colourful — even the Royal Opera House curtains were replaced by pink ones with Anna Nicole motifs, and there were photographs of her around the balconies and above the stage. The theme is of course tackiness, and the libretto by Richard Thomas pulls no punches in terms of coarse language. Perhaps there is something thrilling about defiance of conventional decorum, and as old man Marshall says, “Don’t grow old with grace. Grow old with disgrace”. The audience loved it, judging by the enthusiasm of the first night. Whether this success will last when the Royal Opera House is no longer pulling out the stops to promote it, remains to be seen, but Turnage’s music has a strong rhythmic pulse, and is well-served by Antonio Pappano’s conducting.

There are six performances in total, ending on March 4 — for more details click here.

Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House Insight Evening, February 2011

9 February, 2011

This ‘Insight’ evening gave the audience some background to the forthcoming new opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage, and it was most informative and well presented. For a review of the first night, click here.

“What’s it like to see your picture all over the London Underground?” asked Elaine Padmore, director of opera, referring to the ubiquitous adverts featuring Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole Smith. For anyone out of the loop on this, Anna Nicole was a model, stripper and sex symbol who wanted to be the next Marilyn Monroe. At one of her performances in Houston she met, and later married, J. Howard Marshall II, who was 89 at the time. As a young man he started a law career at Yale, later worked for the federal government, then left to join the oil industry, made a fortune and went into the energy business. Their marriage lasted fourteen months until his death in 1995 at the age of 90. There was then a legal row about his will (for an estate worth a billion pounds), which did not include Anna Nicole nor one of his sons. The son died in 2006, Anna Nicole died in 2007 (aged 39), and the case has now advanced to the Supreme Court.

“I think she really loved him”, answered Eva-Maria Westbroek, “[he] made her feel wonderful”. Gerald Finley will sing Anna Nicole’s third husband Howard K Stern (Howard Marshall was her second), and he commented that, “This is a feast of [Mark-Anthony Turnage’s] talent as a composer . . . he has such a strong rhythmic pulse”. Antonio Pappano, who will conduct it, commented on the balance of strings compared to the large complement of wind along with a variety of percussion and other instruments, such as an electric bass, not normally heard in an orchestra. He described the music in the first act as ‘zany’, while in Act 2 it gets ‘bigger’. Turnage has a strong background in jazz, and this ‘opera’ is being treated to some extent as a musical. Will it be like Kurt Weill? No one mentioned his name, but they did mention Zeitoper, and Krenek’s Johnny spielt auf. We will have to wait and see about the music, but the lyrics already intrigue me, and an example was given, reminding me of Cole Porter’s You’re the Top. The man in charge of the libretto is Richard Thomas, who received an Olivier Award for his score to Jerry Springer — The Opera. As Turnage said, the words come first and the music follows, but there has obviously been a strong interchange between Thomas and Turnage, and as Gerald Finley said, “After the first ten days of working there was a new script”.

When this opens on February 17 it all has to be entirely ready. Opera is not like theatre or musicals where you get a run at it first in a series of previews. In this case the ROH have used ‘workshops’ to play that role, and already one important change has been made. Originally they were going to abandon surtitles, because there’s some subtle ‘miking’ and they thought the singers would be readily heard. But as soon as the orchestra came into play they realised surtitles would be necessary, and though these won’t cover all the words, there will be enough. That’s a great relief, and I already look forward to reporting on it after the first night, and again later in the run. It sounds very exciting, and I believe tickets are now hard to come by.

There are six performances, running from February 17 to March 4 — for details, click here.