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.

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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.