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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.