TURNAGE Anna Nicole
It seems fitting that Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole should reach a wider audience through this vividly filmed DVD. Like Anna Nicole herself, who lived out her life in the media, this is an opera that demands to be seen in its full wide-screen glory. From fame and fortune as a DD-bust-sized model to an early death from a drugs overdose, Anna Nicole’s story can be seen as a mirror-image of the American dream and Richard Jones’s luridly coloured production plays up the nightmare image of lower-class vulgarity in the US for all it is worth.
On DVD, the opera is worryingly compelling. The more Turnage and his librettist, Richard Thomas, pile one cringe-making scene upon another, the harder it is to look away. Taken on its own, Thomas’s in-your-face text is slick, and the satire flashes past (I recommend watching the DVD with the English subtitles on). Like Cole Porter, he is adept at list songs – most imaginatively in the list of drugs intoned by Anna Nicole’s son after his death – but it is a fatal flaw that Thomas shuns the solo opportunities to explore character that opera needs. Turnage’s score does him the favour of keeping out of the way where the words need to be heard and concentrates on building up a contemporary, urban, very sleazy atmosphere. The way Turnage takes Anna Nicole’s solo ‘You can pray, you can dream’ and moulds it afresh into the Prelude to Act 2 is just one example of the music’s incidental beauties.
Eva-Maria Westbroek is the game soprano who takes on the title-role, singing in excellent English and making the journey from glamour babe to fat-and-frumpy loser with admirable panache. But then the whole cast is excellent, from Gerald Finley’s Lawyer Stern and Susan Bickley’s feisty Mother to Alan Oke as the 89-year-old second husband, all bolstered by a vivid musical performance under Pappano. So why do the doubts refuse to go away? Primarily because the crucial disappointment is that Turnage and Thomas, between them, have failed to get beneath the surgically enhanced skin of Anna Nicole to suggest what the real woman might have been like underneath. As it stands, the opera is a salacious exposé and not much more – a compelling one none the less.