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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.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Opera Review: Goin' Bust

As New York City Opera teeters, Anna Nicole shines.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
J. Howard Marshall II (Robert Brubaker, in wheelchair) gives an interview
pushed by the title character (Sarah Joy Miller) in Mark Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole.
Photo by Stephanie Berger © 2013 Brooklyn Academy of Music/BAM NextWave/New York City Opera.
The impending doom hovering over the New York City Opera's plans for the rest of its 2013-2014 season did not affect the second U.S. performance of Mark Anthony Turnage's opera Anna Nicole. On Thursday night at the BAM Opera House, Mr. Turnage's opera revealed itself to be a gaudy, sleazy and fiercely funny retelling of the life of Vickie Lynn Hogan, the Texas waitress whose path of celebrity and perpetual self-reinvention ended with her death by overdose (at the age of 39) in 2007.

Mr. Turnage's opera (setting a witty, foul-mouthed libretto by Richard Thomas) does skim over certain details of the Anna Nicole saga (Hugh Hefner and Playboy® are mentioned only in passing, and her brief Hollywood career is ignored.) The music draws on everything from Verdi to jazz to modern rock and roll. Certain ideas are original, others recall other contemporary operas (particularly an oral sex scene that reminds one of Thomas Àdes' Powder Her Face). The text passing references made to lyrics by The Beatles and Guns N' Roses, using bright, clashing tonal colors in a way that always sounds purposeful and coherent.

At the center of the show is the centerfold-turned-heroine, and her relentless pursuit of fame, painkillers and ultimately, peace. This is a stunning performance by soprano Sarah Joy Miller. Ms. Miller navigated the difficult vocal writing, tricky rhythms and wide vocal demands, making this difficult role look easy. Coping with a rapid series of costume changes and prancing on carpet in a pair of high Jimmy Choo shoes, she embodied the late bombshell without seeming like a parody, acting and not aping the real Anna Nicole.

Richard Jones' production treats Ms. Smith's choice of breast augmentation as a comic number. Baritone Richard Troxell delivering a strong comic turn as the knife-happy surgeon Doctor Yes. The sheer absurdity of these procedures is addressed in an unflinching manner, as the chronic back pain and subsequent drug addiction become plot points in the show. In fact, Anna's son Daniel (played as a child by Griffin Reese and as an adult by Nicholas Barasch) principally serves as her drug courier, bringing "Mama" her "candy" as needed throughout the show.

The former Vickie Lynn Hogan (Sarah Joy Miller) makes her entrance in Act I of Anna Nicole. Photo by Stephanie Berger © 2013 Brooklyn Academy of Music/BAM NextWave/New York City Opera.
Those Jimmy Choos walk a downward path, and the last act of Anna is difficult, treacherous territory. Ms. Miller responded with a fearless turn, cutting close to the bone of the character even as cheeseburgers and "creamy dreamy pies" swelled her hips. The death of Daniel in 2006, three days after the birth of her first daughter Dannielynn proves to be the ultimate back-breaker. The final suicide scene (as Ms. Miller zips herself into a body-bag while surrounded by an ocean of dancing, prancing cameras) is almost a blessed relief.

Of the many men in Ms. Smith's short life, the most impressive performance came from tenor Robert Brubaker, a character singer whose high tessitura and capability for physical comedy made him perfect for J. Howard Marshall II, the octegenarian billionaire whose decision to marry Anna Nicole stands at the center of the story. Entering the chaos of Anna's strip-club ambitions as a sugar daddy on a flying wheelchair, Mr. Brubaker makes the elderly oil magnate a curiously sympathetic figure. He becomes less so as he indulges his new wife's every whim.

Baritone Rod Gilfry has been one of the stalwarts of the George Steel era at City Opera, and here he delivers a superb dramatic turn, using comic instincts and that Don Giovanni leer to embody Stern, Ms. Smith's pimp-like lawyer. In her company debut, Susan Bickley is brilliant as Virgie Hogan, Ms. Smith's mother, who serves as the lone voice of critical reason in this madhouse of a show. Ms. Bickley is left at the end to sing a eulogy for her departed grandson and daughter, providing moving narration as the opera swirls to its tragic close.

Considering the dire fiscal circumstance that City Opera currently finds itself in (the company has stated that it must raise $20 million to continue operations after Anna Nicole closes) the decision to produce Anna Nicole (in conjunction with BAM NextWave) could be seen as a desperate gamble. Yet, as this company once more faces extinction, it begs the question: If the New York City Opera will no longer bring us American operas like The Ballad of Baby Doe, Lizzie Borden and Anna Nicole, who will?

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats