Anna Nicole, New York City Opera, New York – review

Anna Nicole Smith, the, er, titular heroine of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s quasi-opera, was celebrated, also denigrated, for her surgically enhanced physique. A fatal femme with irrepressibly sultry inclinations, she was famous for being infamous. Her banal rise and maudlin fall might be worthy of some sort of psycho-musico-dramatic documentation. Unfortunately, this is not it.

When Anna Nicole was first performed – possibly overperformed – at Covent Garden in 2011, one read a few raves. Most of the reviews, however, were reserved at best, unreservedly negative at worst. On Tuesday the same lavish production was imported to the Brooklyn Academy of Music by the New York City Opera. The cast was mostly new, yet success remained dubious. Granted, a partisan audience laughed at Richard Jones’s clever staging and clapped on cue. The singing-acting-dancing-smirking ensemble exhibited tireless valour. Miriam Buether’s sets and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes exuded witty glitz. Still, the package suggested much snazzy ado about not much at all.

Steven Sloane nurtured momentum in the well-staffed pit even though the thumping-sliding-jerking score seldom rises above incidental agitation. Richard Thomas’s libretto concentrates on cartoon satire in the first hour, then tries to turn teary tragic. The English text dabbles in profanity – aural sex, if you will – that neither shocks nor amuses after 10 minutes. The litany of sophomoric rhymes becomes doubly obvious, also doubly irksome, when flashed atop the proscenium. Primitive amplification distorts the aesthetic treacle.

Sarah Joy Miller, pert rather than innately alluring as Anna Nicole, sustains a semblance of sympathy in this long, thankless challenge. Robert Brubaker compels pity as her super-rich, geriatric husband. Susan Bickley, the only holdover from London, conveys hard-boiled practicality as her mother. Rod Gilfry vacillates between awkwardness and suavity as Anna’s lawyer-turned lover.

Teetering on the brink of extinction, the City Opera has announced that it will cancel the rest of its meagre season unless it raises $7m in donations by the end of the month. An additional $13m will be needed by the end of 2013 to ensure future activities. The prospects are gloomy.

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