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

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

Next Week:

Anna Picard shares a packet of pork scratchings with Troy Boy, pub-theatre adaptation of La Belle Hélène

Classical Choice

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic straddle the Thames in a joint residency at the Barbican and Southbank Centres. Tonight, at the QEH, there's chamber music by Mahler, Schubert and Schoenberg. At the Barbican there's Stravinsky and Mahler (Mon), Schubert and Haydn (Tue). The series ends with Brahms, Wolf and Mahler at the RFH (Wed).

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before