2020 May Kirsten Flagstad -1206
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Royal Opera at Covent Garden


Anna Nicole


Andrew Porter


Mark-Anthony Turnage, now 50, came to prominence with Night Dances (1981). His first opera was Greek (Munich, 1988). A second chamber opera, The Country of the Blind, appeared at Aldeburgh in 1997, on a bill with Twice Through the Heart (like Erwartung a monodrama, but first planned as a full-length chamber opera). They were productions by the ENO’s Contemporary Opera Studio, and the ENO staged Turnage’s first full-scale opera, The Silver Tassie, in 2000. Eleven years later, his Anna Nicole arrives at Covent Garden.


He has often treated violent, sensational, painful subjects: Lament for a Hanging Man (Jeremiah and Sylvia Plath texts); Berkoff’s East End Oedipus; Three Screaming Popes (after Francis Bacon); Blood on the Floor (a late Bacon painting and the death by drug abuse of Turnage’s brother among its sources). Anna Nicole Smith—does anyone still need telling?—was a small-town Texas bimbo who bought an implanted pair of enormous breasts and featured as a Playboy centrefold in 1992. In 1994, aged 26, she acquired an 89-year-old oil-billionaire husband, but not his dollars when he died a year later. She made a new career in ‘reality TV’; was pictured as a cod Madonna cradling her son Daniel, dead from a drug overdose, in her arms; and died herself, drugged, drunk and fat, in 2007. ‘The gaudily uninhibited Anna Nicole Smith belongs in opera’, a Covent Garden programme essay told us.


The Royal Opera put on the dog for the show it had commissioned. Hundreds of blown-up colour photographs of Anna Nicole lined its lobbies and corridors. Her features were superimposed upon its busts of Patti, Melba and Beecham, the medallion of Queen Victoria above the stage, the lobby statue of Frederick Gye. The dignified house curtain was replaced by something tackier. PR had been busy, the newspapers went along with it, the web buzzed, and the six performances were sold out. In the Royal Opera’s vulgar, dumbing-down bid to ‘attract a new audience to opera’, trash culture was enthusiastically, lavishly, unstintingly on show, without apparent satirical intent. Well, perhaps not altogether ‘unstintingly’: a plan to provide the libretto was dropped on grounds of cost: only ‘elitists’, people serious about opera, bother to read a libretto. 

There was ‘a very light use of amplification on the soloists to increase clarity of the words’. They were delivered pretty clearly, though often at the expense of tonal purity and shapely line. The words had been written by Richard Thomas, a co-creator of Jerry Springer—The Opera. The diva’s opening and closing utterance is ‘I want to blow you all [pause for shock] … a kiss’. Onstage blow-jobs have become a cliché of opera today. Directors add them to Mozart; Adès composed an entertaining one in Powder Her Face; and Turnage has composed an extended one, with a fortissimo climax when ‘orgasm is reached’. Richard Jones, the director of the Covent Garden show, flinched from fidelity to the stage directions in the score (‘We see the entire blow-job. She varies her speed. She knows how to give a good blow-job’), masking it from view behind a clustered chorus. In other ways too, I thought, Jones dulled the intended impact of Turnage’s opera. The opening ‘choral cartoon’ was not ‘the whole of America’—the specified list of participants is colourful and long—but treated as a Carl Orff-ish number thumped out by a static choral society, uniformly clad (by Nicky Gillibrand) as a posse of TV reporters. The Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dalai Lama and Madonna did not turn up to bless Anna Nicole’s marriage to her billionaire. It was altogether an oddly austere, unimaginative, even timid presentation of the piece, in large but unattractive, underfurnished sets by Miriam Buether...


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