“Anna Nicole”, Modern Day Tragedy at the ROH!
On Monday, 21st February I went to the Royal Opera House, in London, for a performance of a brand new opera, commissioned by the Royal Opera on what some people thought was an unlikely and inadequate subject, i.e. Anna Nicole Smith – model, sex symbol, actress & reality TV personality – who died, in 2007, at the age of 39, of an overdose of prescription drugs. [For more information, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_nicole_smith].
Anna Nicole’s rise to fame was due, as so many cases nowadays, not to knowledge, achievements or talent but sadly due to lack of it, as well as her beauty, her plastic surgery, her hunger for fame, publicity and a better life, which ultimately turned out to be hell. The story of her life and untimely death is a modern day tragedy but she is not a unique case and there have been other women throughout history who led similar lives to that of Anna Nicole, as interestingly described in an excellent article by David Roberts entitled “Two Millennia of Tragic Bimbos” and included in the Royal Opera House’s programme book.
The opera “Anna Nicole” was composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage and the libretto is by Richard Thomas, based on Anna Nicole Smith’s true story. There are of course fabulous comic operas (think Rossini and The Barber of Seville for example); however, opera is often dramatic or tragic (remember Verdi’s great dramatic operas or Puccini’s melodramas) and so, I think that Anna Nicole Smith’s life is really a good subject for an opera. Although it received mixed reviews, I found the score excellent, with interesting elements of classical and jazz; the libretto is witty and merges effectively with the music; a fact that enhances the story dramatically and makes the tragedy quite poignant at the end. There is a moral lesson provided by comments of the chorus (functioning like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, i.e. as a kind of messenger between the audience and what is taking place on stage) regarding the lack of depth of “fame for the sake of fame” without talent to sustain its pressures.
The production is very effective at depicting our times and our obsession with fame and looks. To my mind, it is a solid work, enjoyable though sad but certainly with great modern day appeal. The performances were all excellent, in particular Alan Oke as J. Howard Marshall II (Anna Nicole’s billionaire second husband who was 62 years her senior) and Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role of Anna Nicole Smith. Antonio Pappano, as ever, led the orchestra of the ROH into a flawless interpretation of the music, enhancing the tragic and satirical elements of the action on stage. Finally, a word to the telling costume and set designs, which perfectly underlined facts that ultimately led to tragedy, as, for example, the excessive focus of the cameras on Anna Nicole. I particularly liked the fact that the paparazzi and the TV cameras were portrayed by people in expressionless, monochrome clothes with a camera as their heads. Overall, a very rewarding evening and, as a long time friend of the ROH, I would like to offer my sincere congratulations to all involved.