Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House, London
Die Fledermaus, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
The Fairy Queen, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
The true story of a small-town girl who married rich and died young makes for an entertaining, if rather inflated, night out
Sunday 20 February 2011
Pumped up on silicone and southern-fried chicken, wasted and blasted on uppers and downers, Anna Nicole smiles from every corner of the Royal Opera House.
Gone are the portraits of Maria Malibran, the maquettes from Gawain and Les Sylphides. Here instead are glossy publicity shots, packets of tranquillisers, relics of a life in the vanguard of raunch culture. Even the red velvet curtains have been replaced with hot-pink nylon. Lap-dancer, gold-digger, siren and grotesque, the single mom from Mexia, Texas, has burned a big hole in Covent Garden's budget.
Brashly and brilliantly staged by Richard Jones, with dayglo designs by Miriam Buether, red-carpet lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin and D M Wood, and pneumatic costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, Mark-Anthony Turnage's opera narrates what may or may not be the life and death of Anna Nicole Smith. As Anna's mother, Virgie (Susan Bickley), reminds us, much of what we see is hearsay, while Anna's lawyer and lover, Howard K Stern (Gerald Finley), attempts to manipulate her backstory for the media. The bare bones are tawdry: an abusive father, a series of minimum wage jobs, pregnancy, and the lure of solvency from lap-dancing and breast enlargement surgery. Enter octogenarian oil-man J Howard Marshall II (Alan Oke), Anna's liver-spotted knight in a shining wheelchair, and her fortunes are transformed. But "there's no such thing as a free ranch" and the price is baby-talk and blow-jobs. Fame follows, and with it addiction: to temazepam, tequila, Jimmy Choos and cocaine, but mostly to fame itself.
Richard Thomas's libretto follows the model he forged in Jerry Springer: The Opera, turning the air several shades of blue with alliterative argot then delivering a sucker-punch of Tin Pin Alley sentiment. Turnage is an old-hand at Americana. There's a hefty dose of Sweeney Todd in the opening chorus, bossa nova rhythms, banjos, blues, trippy waltzes, woozy veils of strings. The orchestration is ravishing, though the tactus unvaried. With so many (rude) words to get across, voices are amplified, making a thick slab of sound despite Antonio Pappano's meticulous conducting. But as triumph turns to tragedy, the textures soften. Copland is the influence in Act II, Turnage's fanfare for the common woman, with a fractured passacaglia for the grieving, overweight Anna.
Though lawyers still circle around Anna Nicole, Turnage's modern-day demi-mondaine is sympathetically drawn. Pouting for the cameras, all big blue eyes and beach-ball breasts, Eva-Maria Westbroek catches Anna's naivety and impulsiveness, if not her Texan accent. It's a captivating performance, and one that is strongest opposite Oke's enfeebled but larger-than-life Marshall. Bickley's Virgie, too, is powerful, enraged and resigned. In a large cast of cartoons and ciphers, Peter Hoare's Larry King is outstanding, as is Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts's psychopathic Trucker. What Anna Nicole's shelf-life will be is anyone's guess. Neither the sex industry nor the cult of celebrity is fully explored, and there's little romance. As to the chorus's claim that "You won't be bored", you must make up your own mind.
Welsh National Opera has intensified its pursuit of the grey pound, replacing Calixto Bieito's nihilistic staging of Die Fledermaus with one that might have come from the 1970s. "You haven't come here to enjoy yourselves. You've come to suffer!" cries veteran actor Desmond Barritt (Frosch) in Act III of veteran director John Copley's production, before wheezing through 15 minutes of veteran jokes. "It's going to be a long night!" he adds.
Not since WNO's Merry Widow have I felt the passing of each second so acutely. But chacun à son goût. Tim Reed's apricot and cream interiors and Deirdre Clancy's fancy frocks went down a treat with the locals, as did quips about Joanne Boag's embonpoint. (Was this breast awareness week?) Nuccia Focile's squally Czardas aside, the singing is trim, the dialogue gruesomely laboured, the conducting (Thomas Rösner) a glimpse of the bittersweet treat this might have been were there more waltz, less schmaltz.
Purcell's The Fairy Queen was given a New Age spin by Philip Pickett and the New London Consort in Mauricio Garcia Lozano's touring production. Marooned in the departures lounge of an imaginary airport, a group of contemporary archetypes (Career Woman, Biker, Prep-school Teacher, Disgraced Vicar etc) bond with four circus performers, resolving their personal issues in a therapeutic henge of designer-label luggage. Though rooted in Renaissance philosophy, this had little impact on what was a straightforwardly stylish musical performance. Did you know recorders were a phallic symbol? Me neither.
'Anna Nicole' (020-7304 4000) to 4 Mar. 'Die Fledermaus' (029-2063 6464) to 5 Mar, then touring
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