Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House, review: Lacking in real tunes and real drama

All-American raunchy opera fails to deliver a single big tune

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The Independent Culture

The delighted whoops as the curtain went up for the second half of Anna Nicole suggested that for its opening night this revival had found its proper level: an audience of sixteen to twenty-five year olds on very cheap tickets. ROH boss Kasper Holten had instructed them to regard the opera house as ‘an emotional business centre’, and they were happy customers.

For their requirements, Richard Jones’s production did the biz. Miriam Buether’s sets, Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes, and Aletta Collins’s choreography are as bright and brassy as the images of the heroine plastered round the auditorium; the lighting rings the changes at a cracking pace from sweat-shop to night-club to sinister netherworld; as spectacle it’s brilliant.

The imported pole-dancers and body-builder do their stuff, the chorus sing their socks off, the jazz combo winsomely underpins the raunchiness of events in this all-American tale of rags-to-riches-to-ruin.

And the cast is unimprovable. Alan Oke’s performance as the horny billionaire is heroically sustained, as is Eva-Maria Westbrook’s incarnation of the heroine, with Rod Gilfry and Susan Bickley bringing total conviction to the roles of her lawyer and mother. No composer or librettist was better served.

But in truth the young punters would have had a better night at any West End musical which had real tunes and real drama - because this show has neither.

Richard Thomas’s libretto offers wall-to-wall vulgarity without a trace of wit; when a maid sponges Anna Nicole’s hair clean after she has fellated her decrepit new lover, that’s the level of subtlety we’re talking about.

We are encouraged by the programme to think Marilyn Monroe, but the comparison doesn’t hold water. This tale has neither mythic force, nor the pathos of a little life shot to ribbons. When she finally climbs into her body bag, it comes as a relief.

Moreover, this was not composer Mark Anthony Turnage’s finest hour. Time and again you sense him desperately searching for a big tune, and failing to find one. There is just one scene where his characteristic blend of jazz and classical modernism hits the button, as a keening instrumental lament underscores Anna’s regretful litany of self-medication.