Why write an opera about the sordid life and death of Anna Nicole Smith? That question doubtless leaped to the minds of many when they heard the Royal Opera had commissioned such a work.
And sad to say, despite the expenditure of considerable talent and money — and a splendid performance by Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role — the question remains unanswered following the world premiere of "Anna Nicole" at Covent Garden on Thursday night.
For anyone who may have forgotten, Smith was a single mother from small-town Texas who, thanks to breast enhancement surgery, became a Playboy celebrity and married an oil tycoon 63 years her senior. Her claim on his fortune was disputed by his heirs, and in 2007 — after giving birth (on pay-per-view TV) and seeing her 20-year-old son die of an overdose in her hospital room — she herself, grossly overweight, died of a drug overdose at age 39.
To be sure, Smith's willingness to go to any lengths to lift herself out of poverty and her lifelong obsession with publicity have a lurid quality that seems almost mythic. That's apparently what attracted librettist Richard Thomas and composer Mark-Anthony Turnage when they were looking for a subject for an opera.
But it's not enough to put the spectacle of her life on stage in a chronological narrative, dressed up with satiric jabs at obvious targets and occasional attempts to indict society at large for enabling Anna's career. We may feel pity for her, along with disgust, but those are not responses that redeem the tawdry spectacle of her life. In this retelling of her story, it's hard to empathize with her, much less imagine her as a figure of tragedy.
Thomas has written a sometimes-clever, sometimes-sophomoric libretto very much in the vein of his popular hit, "Jerry Springer: The Opera."
A typical sample is Anna's introductory line: "I want to blow you all — a kiss." (These are also her final words before being zipped into a body bag at the end.)
In a more serious, but not necessarily more persuasive vein, Thomas has Anna exclaim near the end: "Oh, America, you dirty whore. I gave you everything but you wanted more.
Turnage, a respected composer of two previous operas, has set Thomas's words to a tuneful, percussive score that is highly accessible on first hearing. His orchestration includes a role for jazz trio — a bass guitar, guitar and drums — that helps blur the lines between "serious" music and a more popular sound. Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera's music director, conducts with seeming mastery.
There are some striking lyrical moments, as when Anna sings an aria of delight after receiving her new breasts (before the resulting back pain has led to her painkiller addiction.) And there's a lovely ensemble to conclude Act 1 as Anna and her billionaire husband, J. Howard Marshall II, stand atop a wedding cake while distorted strains of Mendelssohn play and various characters express their thoughts.
There's also a gorgeous, melancholy interlude midway through Act 2, marking the passage of 10 years as a curtain covered with double cheeseburgers shows Anna's figure giving way to the obesity of later years.
Westbroek, a Dutch soprano much admired in the standard repertory of Wagner, Verdi and Puccini, throws herself into the title role with all of her considerable assets. On stage for virtually the entire two-hour length of the opera, Westbroek sings with luminous tone and creates a plausible sex symbol with her blond hair and glamorous figure (before she has to put on a fat suit for the later scenes). There's also a disarming sincerity and eagerness to please about her that make the character more appealing than she might otherwise be.
Among the supporting cast, mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley makes a sympathetic figure as Anna's loyal but critical mother, Virgie ("My flesh, my blood, my embarrassment," she sings at one point). Tenor Alan Oke as Marshall makes a splendid entrance flying in from the wings in an over-sized armchair and revels with unabashed glee at buying Anna's sexual favors.
As Anna's surgeon, Doctor Yes, tenor Andrew Rees has fun with his aria describing the differences in cup sizes ("A is small, no use at all ... ." Dominic Rowntree, as Anna's grown-up son, Daniel, doesn't get to sing until after he's dead. Then he has a brief aria, the words of which consist of a list of all the drugs found in his system — Valium, Prozac and about 20 others.
The opera's most problematic character is Anna's lawyer-turned-boyfriend, Howard K. Stern. Portrayed by baritone Gerald Finley, he makes brief appearances in Act 1 but without much purpose.
Even in Act 2, the part seems underwritten — as if the creators couldn't quite decide whether to make him more villain or sorrowful witness to Anna's demise.
Director Richard Jones has given the work a lively, fast-moving production, especially in the first and vastly more entertaining half, which traces Anna's rise in jaunty, energetic fashion.
Though the Royal Opera warned of "extreme language, drug abuse and sexual content," there's little on stage to shock, some rough language aside. Even the sex act to which Anna's opening lines teasingly refer takes place with the chorus tactfully concealing her and Marshall from view.
There are five more performances through March 4, all of them sold out.