Feature

Anna Nicole

This eyebrow-raising new opera made its debut in London last week and was an ovation-stirring, “improbable triumph.”

Royal Opera House, London

***

In London, this eyebrow-raising new opera was nearly smothered by pre-opening rumors and hype, said Jessica Duchen in the London Independent. The specter of a show at the Royal Opera House detailing the “sorry history” of onetime Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith even netted the Covent Garden institution a lawsuit threat from the late celebrity’s estate. But last week, “the most hotly anticipated night in contemporary opera in years” finally arrived, and with it, a show that many may have underestimated. “Shocking it isn’t—stunning it is.” Bolstered by “varied, acidic, and lyrical” orchestrations by Mark-Anthony Turnage and a bawdy but insightful libretto by Richard Thomas, Smith’s tragic story charts “the rise and fall of Western excess itself.”

Audiences could be forgiven if the import of Smith’s “sordid” tale still eludes them, said Mike Silverman in the Associated Press. Thomas has given the story a satiric spin that seems an attempt to “indict society at large for enabling Anna’s career.” But while we may “feel pity” for Smith, we can’t actually empathize. We’re left with merely the “tawdry spectacle” of a small-town Texan who, “thanks to breast-enhancement surgery,” became a centerfold pinup and married an oil tycoon 63 years her senior before dying, at 39, of a drug overdose. That said, the whole affair is treated with great style, and Turnage’s “tuneful, percussive score” proves “highly accessible on first hearing.”

The music may in fact be “the primary reason that so much seems so right in Anna Nicole,” said Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times. “There are flashes of Weill” in the “chattering, cabaret-like scenes” that feature a cluster of scandalmongering reporters. The show’s heroine, meanwhile, warrants comparisons to Jenny, of Weill and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, thanks in part to a “vocally commanding and emotionally courageous performance” by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek. We shouldn’t have worried that Anna Nicole would be an unseemly bid to make opera hip. It’s instead an ovation-stirring, “improbable triumph.”

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