Upon entering the Royal Opera House, bastion of English culture, it is immediately apparent that something a bit unusual is afoot. No mere opera, Anna Nicole, it seems, is a playful state of mind, a carnival-esque event. And every frame on every wall, every face on every statue, every cherubic piece of moulding, even the seal on the curtain has got its Anna Nicole mask on to celebrate. So when the curtain rises on Anna’s suited Greek chorus of media types, things are already a bit heady.
But is it all a gimmick? As Eva-Maria Westbroek, lounging flirtatiously in an over sized gilded armchair, sings her first notes as Anna, ‘I want to blow you all… I want to blow you all… … a kiss!’ it is too early to tell.
From that line, however, it is evident that Richard Thomas’s libretto is going to be playfully vulgar throughout; indeed, it transpires that as a whole, it is spot-on. Framed as a series of retrospective interviews about Anna Nicole’s life, lorded over by an ever-present news lady, much of it is often chatty and narrative in style. With a lot of alliteration, word play, and some extremely artful swearing, Anna Nicole often seems something like a grotesque fairy tale being constantly re-worked by Anna, her mother, her lawyer, and the Chorus.
The first act follows the waves of desire which will drag Anna to the choices which will be her demise. Bouncing along with joyful profanities, and some rather mesmerising prosthetic breasts, the first act is largely funny and light. Concluding with the strangely macabre and gaudy image of Anna, her son Daniel, and J. Howard Marshall II up on a set piece which is part parade float and part wedding cake topper, it is self-proclaimed farce. Although there are more serious undertones exemplified in Anna’s proclamation that she is going to ‘rape the American dream’.
The second act runs with this more ominous tone to touching effect without ever losing the majesty of its larger-than-life proportions. The Chorus wields body bags, and the set grows ever more outlandish as the consequences begin to mount.
Westbroek is perfect as Anna Nicole. Singing her soprano with a slight southern drawl, she plays Anna Nicole as sweet, seductive, crass and doomed, from her intonation to her body movements and her facial expressions. She humanises and mythologises someone whom it would have been easy to disregard as a ridiculous figure.
More wide speaking, Anna is portrayed as a wide-eyed, small town girl who just wants something more; it’s a story so common it verges on archetypal. Indeed, Anna Nicole transcends mere biography. In truth, there is more information about Anna Nicole’s life to be gleaned from fifteen minutes’ perusal of her Wikipedia page. But that, I would argue, is part of the point. Preoccupied with ideas of representation and perceived truths, this opera is very much about the mutable nature of ‘facts’, both in the media and in memory. It is not uncommon for someone to sing ‘that’s not what happened’. And the increasing presence of autonomous video cameras (played eerily beautifully by a team of ballerinas with video equipment for heads) serves to remind the audience that in 2004, as now, its delight in the spectacle, its willingness to watch, is part of the deeper problem.
I don’t feel qualified to say whether Anna Nicole was good as an example of or an innovation on opera as an art form (this is only the third I’ve ever seen!). But I do relish the fact that Anna Nicole has been an opportunity for public debate about the nature of opera. And I would certainly say that I think the production, as a whole, wouldn’t have worked in any other dramatic form. Together, the operatic form and the might of the institution that is the ROH gave this tragicomic piece exactly the gravitas it needs to be carried off as more than mere spectacle. The juxtaposition between ‘low-life’ and high culture resounds throughout.
While Anna Nicole may not be the future of opera, it was a highly entertaining, visually interesting, mentally stimulating indictment of the vapidity of contemporary American culture, which rang true to the point that in watching it, I felt pangs of nostalgia. Fun and sensational without being trite or simplistic, Anna Nicole is gilded with brilliance no matter what you want to call it.
Anna Nicole is playing at the Royal Opera House until 4 March 2011. For tickets and information, visit http://www.roh.org.uk