Royal Opera's 'Anna Nicole' misses the inner beauty

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 11:10 PM

LONDON - Anna Nicole Smith, the late celebrity personality of tabloid fame, had many ambitions, but gracing the curtain of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden here was probably not among them.

On Thursday night, though, she was not only on the curtain, but also all over the theater. The carved statues on the balconies sported her face; items of her personal attire (including an amazingly large bra) were displayed in the glass cases in the foyer; and her headshot was even superimposed over the royal medallion above the proscenium. And, of course, she was onstage, as the protagonist of a brand-new opera based on her life and called simply "Anna Nicole."

Overkill? Sure. Smith (who died in 2007, at age 39) was all about overkill. Yet Thursday's glitz seemed a little square. Even as Covent Garden festooned itself with her face, the company seemed bent on trying to play down the excitement, not quite prepared for the media glare that such a venture was bound to incite. It was like the class nerd trying to get the cool kids' attention with last year's fashions (Anna Nicole's story is, after all, hardly new), and then not knowing what to do when the attention comes her way.

The attention was certainly there, and the producers were probably happy at the end of the night, hearing the cheers and wolf whistles of the crowd. But the applause was more for the surface glitz than for a work of art. The hope for "Anna Nicole" was that the creators - Mark-Anthony Turnage, a major compositional voice in classical music today with a bad-boy streak, and Richard Thomas, whose last pop-culture venture was "Jerry Springer: The Opera" - would transform their subject into effective theater. Instead, the material ended up mastering them. They documented Anna Nicole's life with dogged persistence, but they neglected to provide one piece of information: why anybody should care.

For the first few, happy minutes, it did look as if they were going to pull it off. The curtain rose on the chorus - dressed in airline-stewardess blue and shiny gray, lined up across the front of the stage - which sang a wry, moralizing summary of Anna Nicole's life that was peppered with laugh lines that were actually funny and set to music that was energetic, syncopated and lively. If the evening had maintained this level of energy and humorous self-awareness, it would have been a triumph.

But alas, as soon as the actual story began, 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.

If you have a singer as gifted as the Canadian baritone Gerald Finley (who played Anna Nicole's lawyer and sometime lover, Howard K. Stern) performing a monologue over roving strata of dark low winds, and it fails to make a dramatic effect, you're doing something wrong. There was certainly nothing wrong with Finley's singing, or his attempts to find significance in Thomas's empty text.

Turnage, too, seemed hampered by his librettist. He's an eminently dramatic composer, and his music was full of touches evoking other great dramatic composers (Britten and Bernstein, to name two), as well as different musical styles: a honky-tonk love duet for Anna Nicole and her first husband; a sinuously seductive waltzlike paean to food sung by Anna Nicole in her later, more zaftig years; and all kinds of jazz-inspired lines snaking around the score.

But both he and Thomas shied away from what should have been the opera's main tasks: characterizing Anna Nicole, and her relationship with Stern, in music. They kept taking refuge in dramatic distractions (an aria by Anna Nicole's mother, Virgie, sung by Susan Bickley, about how much she hates men) but hardly ever hauled off and let Anna Nicole have a real aria or explained her relationship with Stern. Perhaps they were too afraid of offending the living to actually take a stand about the inner life of their title character. In the wordless Intermezzo that divides Act II, the music suddenly became vital again, as if Turnage had been able, at last, to cut loose.

A lot of serious talent went into creating this unsatisfying evening, led by Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera House's excellent music director, in the pit. Eva-Maria Westbroek threw herself into the title role with everything she had, including gams and a pair of alarming fake breasts so ill-fitting they would have shamed any self-respecting drag queen. Her voice was firm and shining and not displayed, by this score, to particular advantage. (Her next role is Sieglinde in the new "Walkuere" at the Metropolitan Opera in April.

The smaller parts had some more grateful moments, notably J. Howard Marshall II, Anna Nicole's octogenarian billionaire husband, sung by Alan Oke with an appropriate wiry toughness; the four buxom lap dancers who, when Anna Nicole starts working in a sex club, instruct her in the rudiments of their art; or Doctor Yes, the plastic surgeon who created Smith's rack (windily sung by Andrew Rees).

Richard Jones, the director, followed the lead of the creators in wavering between presenting the facts and giving them a hint of an auteur's spin: the candy-pink walls, zebra-print chairs and giant mattress seemed to come out of several different operas.

The sex-club scene, incidently, harked back to another work of music theater based on the true story of a stripper turned superstar: "Gypsy." The reference might even have been intentional. It was unfortunate, though, since "Gypsy" has the developed characters and relationships and musical numbers that "Anna Nicole" lacks. That's why "Gypsy" is about to be filmed with Barbra Streisand, while "Anna Nicole" remains a chronic underachiever, its potential left untapped.

At best, it is a kind of exhibit of American mores written by Brits for a British audience that, on Thursday, wanted very much to like it.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company