MUSIC REVIEW Michael White
An opera about a smalltown trailer-trash princess who flaunts her sexuality to ludicrous degrees of brazenness and becomes an international icon of vulgarity isn’t necessarily to everyone’s taste; and Covent Garden’s own website said as much, with an adult content warning in the blurb for its new commission Anna Nicole. But Anna is only the latest recruit to a sisterhood of fallen women – Carmen, Manon, Lulu, Violetta – who are the very stuff of opera: a genre whose audience has always loved a spot of sleaze. So the pre-opening-night debate as to whether this was a suitable subject for the lyric stage was homing in on the wrong question.
The right question was whether a piece that celebrates the vacuity of contemporary American life – and to a depressing extent our own – can rise above vacuity itself, or whether it gets lost in its own froth or finds something of substance beneath. And though I wish I could hail Anna Nicole as a win for substance, I can’t. It’s clever and touching, but the little of profundity it has to say about its subject is obscured by what the libretto itself, in a throwaway line, calls “too much information”.
Anna’s short but crowded existence gave the authors of the piece – Mark-Anthony Turnage, composer, and Richard Thomas, librettist – too much to choose from; and the result is something overwhelmed by incident, congested by an over-rich libretto. Wildly scatological, the words are actually a virtuoso feat: the sharpest, funniest opera text I’ve heard in years. But opera doesn’t always flourish with that kind of virtuosity – and in Anna Nicole it presents Turnage with a real problem, because he can’t keep up.
Thomas has a natural, fast-flowing comic genius that flowers from dung hills and generates whole scenes that, driven by the fierce pace of a Richard Jones production, dazzle with invention and repeatedly present opportunities that the music can’t quite handle. Not that the score is without fierceness of its own, but the idiom here is more elegiac than comedic, steeped in Turnage’s speciality of keening urban desolation and the whine of solo saxophones on empty streets, and tending toward Broadway ballads. It’s attractive but not smart, or quick, enough to hold its own.
Performances? Well, Eva-Maria Westbroek tries hard to be up for it as Anna and nearly succeeds. She’s a conventional heavy Verdi/Wagner singer who has found it challenging to take a role like this and look relaxed and comfortable about it. Vocally she’s strong. Dramatically she’s game but in an awkward way. There are two wonderful supporting acts from Alan Oke as the old man Anna marries, and from Gerald Finley as the dodgy lawyer she ends up with. And beyond them it’s a real ensemble effort with some joyous cameos and spunky playing from the orchestra under Antonio Pappano.
Did I have a good time? Yes – not least because resistance withers in the face of lines like “no one vomits on Dolly Parton’s shoes”, an observation that will stay with me. But when the audience broke into tumultuous applause at the end, I found it hard to be so ecstatic. Anna Nicole is a colourful and naughty novelty with the appeal of a seaside postcard. From a major opera house, you hope for more.
By contrast, nobody could hope for more than they got from Simon Rattle’s superlative Southbank concert with the Berlin Philharmonic last week, which formed part of of a short, hotticket London residency and featured a reading of Mahler’s Third Symphony that came riddled, gloriously, with paradox: monumental in scale but mercurial in movement; magnificently rich but transparently clear; with nuanced sophistication but emphatic directness. The achievement of Rattle’s conducting was to hold all these conflicting qualities together, in meaningful balance, through the span of a long score; and I could fill an essay with the incidences of miraculous musicianship encountered on the way.
I love our British orchestras, but have to say none of them deliver at this level: it was like a lesson in how things can be, given the talent, will and (not to be forgotten) funding.