What a tragedy. What a waste. Not the life of Anna Nicole Smith, stupid – though the American bimbo who died of a drug overdose in 2007, aged 39, epitomised both. No, I mean the new Mark-Anthony Turnage “opera” about her and the celebrity culture she represented. “Anna Nicole” is not an opera. It’s a musical-theatrical hybrid, so simplistic in its construction and vocal scoring, so cheap in its pseudo-sexual thrills and narcotic spills, that it wastes an opera house’s resources. A tragedy indeed: music director Antonio Pappano, dramatic soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek and a large, talented ensemble have little to show for their efforts, but that’s not the point. The purpose of the venture is to show that Covent Garden is somehow in sympathy with contemporary life, rather than an elite-serving museum.
“Anna Nicole” is hamstrung from the start by Richard Thomas’s libretto – catchy, trite and intermittently funny, but so keen to flaunt bad language that you wonder who Thomas (of “Jerry Springer: The Opera” fame) might be trying to shock, other than UK tabloid editors and American conservatives. It’s not immorality that kills “Anna Nicole”; it’s the absence of characterisation and dramatisation in a scenario that, if you read Nicole Smith’s biography, has “opera” written all over it.
As it stands, the piece belongs in the same genre as “Jerry Springer”, strung along a clothesline of lewd ditties and frothy choruses. This is slick satire masquerading as art, something Kurt Weill and George Gershwin did far better in the 1930s. When Turnage does free himself from Thomas’s lurid doggerel (“thong/wrong”, “God bless/No IRS”), he demonstrates what a serious composer he is, a creator of smoochy atmosphere and theatrical pathos, all very much in tune with the popular American ethos of the story.
Keening woodwind motifs, alternately Britten-esque and raucous, irradiate his all-too-brief instrumental interludes, and just occasionally he creates enough elbow room for a sweet, never saccharine, song – as when Anna celebrates her boob job in “You need a little luck”, and billionaire J. Howard Marshall II, her geriatric husband-to-be (Alan Oke), hymns the elixir of oral sex. There’s a part for her lawyer-cum-lover Stern (Gerald Finley) that never quite takes off. And there’s one brilliant aria, consisting solely of the names of narcotic substances, sung by Anna’s son Danny (Dominic Rowntree). It’s the only time he sings and, significantly, he does so immediately after his death.
But for most of a long two hours, Turnage is hostage to the shapelessness of Thomas’s wham-bam narrative, which kowtows to the very sexual objectification and superficiality that Nicole Smith took to such extremes in real life. Richard Jones’s staging, designed by Miriam Buether and Nicky Gillibrand, merely joins in the party, leaving us unsure whether the heroine is a symbol of society’s sickness or just stupid. Despite Westbroek’s gutsy, high-stamina performance, we are left feeling nothing for her – and we leave the theatre wondering why this commercial singsong is being performed in a subsidised opera house rather than a West End theatre. What a tragedy. What a waste.
Listen to a critics’ discussion of Anna Nicole: www.ft.com/artspodcast