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'Anna Nicole' at the Royal Opera House: What did the critics think?

February 18, 2011 | 11:27 am

Anna

The world premiere of "Anna Nicole," a new opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage at London's Royal Opera House, brought out the reporters, television cameras and celebrity gawkers as if it were the second coming of the buxom blond tabloid star herself.

"Anna Nicole" is an event that combines high and low culture in ways seldom seen in the opera world. Inspired by the life of the late Anna Nicole Smith, the former stripper who died of an apparent drug overdose in 2007, the opera stars soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as the anatomically enhanced celebrity who rose to fame after she married J. Howard Marshall II, an octogenarian Texas billionaire.

The opera also features Alan Oke as Marshall and Gerald Finley as Howard K. Stern, who was Smith's lawyer and partner. The cast list also includes ensemble roles described as "lap dancers" and "meat rack girls." The opera is directed by Richard Jones, with Antonio Pappano conducting.

Music critics have so far had mixed reactions to "Anna Nicole." Some of them are praising the opera as entertaining and engrossing, while others are calling it a hollow enterprise.

The Independent's Jessica Duchen called the opera "a tremendous show, fast-paced, spare and concentrated," and praised the music as "terrific." The reviewer wrote that "the orchestra and jazz band together pack a punch in Turnage's rhythmic score."

Mark Swed of the L.A. Times called it "a tawdry, if entertaining, opera," adding that "it was not until a beguiling orchestral interlude in the second act, and too late, that 'Anna' finally seemed worth taking seriously."  He added that "Westbroek’s Wagnerian chops served her well, her ill-fitting mammary prosthesis not so well."

The New York Times' Anthony Tommasini called "Anna Nicole" a "weirdly inspired work, an engrossing, outrageous, entertaining and, ultimately, deeply moving new opera. This was an improbable triumph for Covent Garden." He added  that the opera "revels shamelessly in the crass, sleazy side of American culture, which may be too easy a target."

Michael White of the Telegraph wrote that the opera is "overwhelmed by incident, and made the more congested by an over-rich libretto," but added that "the words are actually a virtuoso feat: the sharpest, funniest (and certainly most full-on) opera text I’ve heard in years."

Anne Midgette of the Washington Post wrote that the creators "documented Anna Nicole's life with dogged persistence, but they neglected to provide one piece of information: why anybody should care." She wrote that after a promising start, "the opera fell like a failed souffle. By deliberately opting for a TV-biopic approach, it became the latest entry in the lists of failed biographical operas: It presented such events like items on a checklist, acted out by two-dimensional characters that never -- despite a fine cast -- came to life."

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-- David Ng

Photo (top): A scene from "Anna Nicole" at the Royal Opera House in London. Credit: Bill Cooper / Royal Opera

Photo (bottom): Anna Nicole Smith in 2004. Credit: Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press

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