Opera review: Anna Nicole

Don't believe the hype.

Anna Nicole
Royal Opera House, London WC2

[Warning: this piece contains language that some readers may find offensive.]

Whoever knowingly scheduled the opening night of Parsifal and world premiere of Anna Nicole back-to-back deserves an award for brazen and brilliant cheek. To move from the sinister purity of Wagner's grail knights, hermetically sealed against lust or human corruption, to the mongrel ruttings and bastard tragedy of Anna Nicole Smith makes quite a statement -- one of the four-letter variety.

With the Royal Opera House's red velvet curtains stained hot-pink, the royal monograms replaced by "A n R", and the stage crowned by a smiling cameo of the buxom blonde herself (framed by two bikini-clad body-builders), it was clear from the start that we weren't in Mozartian Kansas any more. Then Richard Thomas's libretto kicked in -- "I wanna blow you all . . . a kiss" -- and we found ourselves deep in the "cuntalicious" world of Anna Nicole.

A Playboy pin-up turned public disaster, Anna Nicole Smith's progress from "Young, single, flat-chested and in debt" to the wife (and latterly widow) of the incontinent octogenarian J Howard Marshall II drags opera's favourite fallen-woman story into the neon-bright, diamante-encrusted present day. The natural heir to Violetta, Manon and Lulu, her breasts may be larger, her sacrifices greater ("There's no such thing as a free ranch"), but her tragedy as chronicled by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer: The Opera fame) is decidedly less poignant.

The hype surrounding Turnage's latest opera has been building for over a year. This, we were assured, is the work that will bring new life to a decrepit genre: the Great White (trash) Hope of opera. Judging by the teeny-bopper rapture of last night's audience, its success is certain; new audiences have already been seduced through the forbidding portals of the opera house and have liked what they have found within. There's just one problem -- I'm not sure that Anna Nicole really is an opera.

With the likes of Sondheim, Weill (and even Bernstein, whose melodic fingerprints were all over Turnage's score) stretching the musical vocabulary of Broadway past all expectations, there's little in Turnage's decidedly conservative score to set it apart. Brash, blowsy and bluesy, Anna Nicole is all shimmying trumpets and thumping bass-line. Voices are amplified to cope with the volume coming from the pit, losing that naked voice-intimacy that only opera can offer. Yes it's through-composed, but so is Evita. Trying to convert people into opera by showing them Anna Nicole is like trying to get children to like fruit by giving them Starbursts.

That's not to say that it's not enjoyable -- it is. Act I is perhaps the best theatrical night out currently on offer in London. Miriam Buether's sets are a miracle of artificial colours and flavours; Walmart hoardings jostle up again stripper poles and ceramic Disney animals -- the lifeless sidekicks to this most perverse of Cinderellas. Thomas's libretto (all pre-packaged rhyming couplets, at its best in a crooning lament by the "restless, breastless masses") frames the action with a Brechtian chorus of newscasters, whose probing microphones swarm ever closer as Anna Nicole's death approaches. Turnage's score (driven urgently from the pit by Antonio Pappano) sizzles and sashays along, wry little allusions to The Rake's Progress and even Mahler's Kindertotenlieder punctuating its all-American textures.

With Act II, however, comes more of the same. Short scenes and nagging rhymes keep Turnage's score from the lyric release it seems to seek. In place of reflection, we get new distractions -- a cynical refusal to validate the tragic status of our heroine.

Eva-Maria Westbroek leads the cast with all the southern swagger she can muster. Combining powerhouse vocals with some really rather touching gestures in her Act II decline, she is almost enough to redeem the director Richard Jones's brittle conclusion. Supported by Alan Oke as her husband and an under-used Gerald Finley as lover Stern ("Svengali, feeder, enabler, Bambi-killer") it's hard to imagine the cast being bettered.

Shock-tactics are nothing new in the world of opera. Only last season ENO proved that Ligeti's 1977 Le Grand Macabre still has cheek-reddening impact, and their current Lucrezia Borgia is all but soft porn. Yet if you're going to make the Royal Opera House ring to cries of "fuck" and "cunt" then you'd sure as hell better have a score that can match it for profanity. Modern, fresh and with plenty of charm, Anna Nicole falls short in its music. Anna Nicole might be the one to "rape the American dream" but Turnage is perhaps the greater criminal, plundering the American Songbook for second-hand parts.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

Getty
Show Hide image

Chuka Umunna: Why tolerance is not enough

Against the Trumpification of politics.

It’s still spring, yet 2016 already stands out as one of the ugliest years in modern British political history. It was fantastic to see Londoners choosing hope over fear in May, electing Sadiq Khan as our first Muslim mayor. But David Cameron, having shamelessly endorsed Zac Goldsmith’s dog-whistle campaign tactics, owes those young Muslims who have been put off politics by the slurs hurled at Khan an explanation. How does racial profiling and sectarian scaremongering fit into his One Nation vision for Britain?

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, one of the best bets to succeed Cameron as our next prime minister, embarrassed Britain on the world stage with a racially charged allusion to Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage. And my own party has been grappling with a swath of deeply disturbing revelations regarding the attitudes held by some on the left towards Israel and Jewish people. Sowing discord by stigmatising or scapegoating a single faith group or community is profoundly at odds with the British tradition of “tolerance”, but we can’t ignore that this year’s events are part of a rising trend of friction and factionalism.

Last year’s general election should have been a wake-up call. The political and cultural divides between people living in the north and south and urban and rural areas – as well as between working-class and metropolitan sensibilities – appear starker than ever. In May’s devolved elections, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics became yet more distinct – giving the impression of a kingdom coming apart at the seams. All the while, more and more voices in our national politics seek to pin the blame for the challenges facing our country on a single section of society, whether immigrants, Muslims or another group.

This trend stretches beyond our borders. From Ukip, the French Front National and Austria’s Freedom Party to Podemos in Spain and Italy’s Five Star Movement, new populist parties of the right and left are on the rise across Europe. In the United States, Bernie Sanders is tapping into the energy of Occupy Wall Street, while Donald Trump has emerged as the heir to the Tea Party: a poster boy for division and recrimination.

Trump’s rise should be a warning for us Brits. The New York Times commentator David Brooks has described his success as less indicative of the emergence of a new school of thought, or movement, and more of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Trump’s campaign has tapped into a complex cocktail of grievances, from the loss of manufacturing jobs in a globalised economy to rising inequality and raw anger felt by many white working-class Americans at demographic and cultural changes.

In the run-up to last year’s general election, as I travelled around the country, I was confronted time and time again with the reality that in the UK – just like in the US – people are afraid and angry because the world is changing in ways they fear are beyond their control. Where once they had believed that, if they worked hard, they would get ahead, too many Britons now feel that the system is rigged in favour of those born into opportunity and that those in power have abandoned them to a broken future. What it means to be British seems to have shifted around them, triggering a crisis of solidarity.

We are at a crossroads and may face nothing less than the Trumpification of British politics. In an uncertain and changing world, it is all too easy to imagine that our problems are caused by those who are different from us.

If we wish to follow the fine example set by Londoners on 5 May and choose unity and empathy over division and blame, we must accept that simply “tolerating” one another will no longer do. There is an accusation built into the very word: what you are doing is “other” or “wrong”. As Britain has become more diverse, we have come to know each other less. This makes it harder to understand how people from different walks of life feel about the big issues.

I am a Labour member because I believe, as it says on our membership cards, that, by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we do alone. In order to develop the bonds of trust required for this to become a reality, and for our communities to flourish and our democracy to deliver for everyone, we must build a society in which people from all backgrounds actually get to know one another and lead interconnected lives. In this sense, “One Nation” – the land over which all parties seek purchase – should become more than a platitude. It should become a way of life.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad