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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

DVD Review: Blonde Ambition

Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera of Covent Garden.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Busting out: Eva-Marie Westbroek as Anna Nicole Smith.
Photo by Catherine Cooper © 2011 
Royal Opera at Covent Garden/ Opus Arte
Mark Anthony Turnage's ambitious opera Anna Nicole is a scathing indictment of American celebrity culture, materialism and media hype. It's an opera about the things in society that have replaced opera in the popular culture. Its focus, the rise and fall of a girl from Texas named Vicki Lynn Hogan, who became an international celebrity as Anna Nicole Smith.

Mr. Turnage's score incorporates modern percussion, jazz elements, vaudeville and pure burlesque, underpinned with the clashing, slab-like chords that are beloved of modern composers. He also knows how to write a vocal line for Anna herself and the constant onstage chorus, mixing speech and song with acidic word-play that is sometimes too twee for its own good. The libretto (by Richard Thomas, co-creator of Jerry Springer: The Opera) is one of the work's strong suits, and does not once tone down its language, taking pleasure in the profanity of American English.

An example: at the end of the first act, Mr. Turnage fragments and twists the wedding music from Lohengrin as Anna is married off to 89-year-old oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall. The reference is made, then shattered, twisted and musically glued back together to illustrate the fragmented state of American that led to the celebrity rise of the title character. Irony becomes idiom, three words that describe the music of this opera and the life of its curiously vacant title character.

The score changes idiom in the second act as Anna gets settled into married life. In the "Jimmy Choo" duet, an ode to fetishism and greed is built  around the onomatopoeic sound of the famous designer's name. Mr. Turnage lays on the orchestral textures, moving out of the jazz idiom as Anna balloons in weight, gets further hooked on drugs and falls from grace. Here the music references Stravinsky, Bernstein and Copland. In the last pages of Anna's life, the musical idiom regresses even further, looking back towards Verdi and Puccini as the tragedy spools out.

Eva-Marie Westbroek takes a bravura turn in the title role of the stripper-turned-celebrity-turned would-be heiress. She veers from vapid, girlish innocence into a Faustian bargain with her plastic surgeon Dr. Yes (Andrew Rees). Once her breasts are augmented, Ms. Westbroek does a great job of managing the same physical challenges that were faced by Ms. Smith, acting out the pain and drug addiction in chilling detail.

This is a vocally difficult role, with high, soaring dramatic lines over a sometimes thundering orchestra. Anna goes from raw, idealized sex appeal to an obese nightmare wolfing down pizza, Twinkies and Jif peanut butter as her decline accelerates and the story moves into the 21st century. The Act II scene played  in front of the Smith refrigerator is like Hänsel und Gretel gone to hell, with Stern (Gerald Finley) as a drug-dealing witch. The work mines a deep tragic vein with the overdose of Anna's semi-autistic son Danny and the final tragic death of Anna herself.

The sugar daddies--er, baritone leads are taken by fine singing actors. As J. Howard Marshall, Alan Oke is a talented physical actor, showing the octogenarian's mix of frailty and lust with good comic timing. He even manages a twisted chemistry with his 26-year-old bride--one sees that they understand and even sort of love each other. Mr.  Finley is brilliant (though poorly recorded) as sleaze-bag lawyer/drug dealer/pimp Stern. Susan Bickley gives a searing portrait of Anna's mother Virgie, a stern law-and-order type who evokes Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona. Mention must also be made of Peter Hoare, dead-on as CNN fixture Larry King.

Although this is a valuable record of the opera's premiere, the production of this DVD was clearly rushed. Sound balance is messy and flawed--probably caused by the issues of hiding microphones from the audience and balancing a large band in the house, a small one onstage and the rock elements in the score. Voices are poorly caught and occasionally drop out altogether. The camera occasionally doesn't know where to look for the action onstage.

There is no question that Mr. Turnage built an important opera from the ashes of Vicky Lynn Hogan's life and career. For now this DVD presentation from OpusArte is the best that New Yorkers can hope for at the moment. It's too bad--Anna Nicole would be perfect material to revive a struggling opera company--say New York City Opera?
Watch the Opus Arte trailer for Anna Nicole here. 

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