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NEW YORK – Tosca, Aida, Carmen, Manon, Violetta, Anna Nicole. It’s not hard to spot the odd name out in that bunch. But in charting the rapacious rise and shocking demise of the gold-digging Playboy Playmate-turned-reality TV star, composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas make a legitimate case for Anna Nicole Smith as a tragic operatic heroine for the 21st century. Laced with outrageous profanity and lowbrow humor, Anna Nicole is also a work of unexpected poignancy. It makes us all complicit in a popular entertainment culture that feeds on celebrity dysfunction while losing sight of the human life trapped beneath the wreckage.
Commissioned by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where Richard Jones’ provocative production premiered in 2011, the opera makes its U.S. premiere as a joint presentation of Brooklyn Academy of Music and the financially troubled New York City Opera.
Thomas previously made a splash molding unconventional subject matter to the lyric form as composer and co-librettist of the 2003 Brit hit Jerry Springer: The Opera. There are thematic overlaps in both shows’ depiction of America’s perceived losers making a yearning bid for the spotlight to escape their tawdry lives. But Anna Nicole finds depths in the material that its predecessor only skimmed. That’s partly due to the complexity of Turnage’s score, which combines jagged modernist dissonance with elements of jazz, cabaret and traditional musical theater.
Mostly, however, it’s the central character herself, sung with sassy appeal and slow-release vulnerability by the soprano Sarah Joy Miller, onstage virtually throughout in a role requiring a roller-coaster emotional range. The opera doesn’t whitewash the lurid nature of Anna Nicole’s story. Neither does it ridicule the pathetic aspects of the protagonist’s life, instead homing in on the pathos without resorting to cheap sentimentality.
While Smith’s brief supermodel reign as the face of Guess is barely referenced, and her Playboy exposure becomes an aside, Anna Nicole traces her adult years in engaging broad-stroked detail. The high-school dropout flees her Hicksville, Texas, hometown, her redneck family and her first marriage to seek her fortune in the “City of Joy,” Houston. After a sour taste of minimum-wage Walmart hell, she moves on to a “Gentleman’s Club,” where her modest cup size proves an impediment to attracting the big tippers. Breast implants soon fix that, with constant back pain deemed a small price to pay. When she scores the bull’s-eye of a rich oilman 62 years her senior, J. Howard Marshall II (Robert Brubaker), the newly curvaceous Anna Nicole declares, “I’m gonna rape the goddamn American dream!”
Recounted with the aid of a gossipy Greek chorus of reporters in tacky suits representing the whirling media circus, the story portrays a woman who is both the architect and victim of her tragic circumstances. While it stops short of making Smith an innocent lamb, the embittered commentary of her security-guard mother, Virgie (Susan Bickley, tremendously moving), underscores the sad fate for many beautiful women in a “hump-and-dump” culture. “Feel my pain. Taste my vomit,” sings Virgie, musing that the thong is to Western women what the burqa is to their sisters in the East.
As in Jerry Springer, much of the humor comes from the incongruous pairing of trashy subject with highbrow form. It’s undeniably a hoot to have the professional rules of lap dancing outlined in an opera, or to hear a chorus of flat-chested maidens voice the lament of “the breastless masses.” It’s typical of the cheeky sense of fun of Jones and set designer Miriam Buether that they deliver 89-year-old Marshall as a bizarre mid-show deus ex machina figure, descending from the flies on a giant stair-lift chair.
Anna Nicole’s wedding to Marshall is staged as a triumph of kitschy vulgarity. But at the same time darker notes creep into the show. Even as Anna Nicole sings a delicate post-marital ode to the sound of a Jimmy Choo on a red carpet, the eerie presence of a dancer with a camera for a head signals that her dream of fame and fortune no longer belongs to her. These human camera figures multiply throughout the second act, slinking around the stage and the auditorium like surreal aliens.
In Brubaker’s spry performance, Marshall is a mischievous old horndog in a gold leisure suit, helpless to resist Anna Nicole’s blonde beauty and “those big fake titties.” The more malevolent male figure is Smith’s controversial lawyer, Howard K. Stern (Rod Gilfry), whose entrances are accompanied by the vilifying cries of the chorus, likening him to “Beelzebub, Slayer of Bambi’s Mother, Darth Vader and Yoko Ono.”
Following Marshall’s death, Anna Nicole and Stern engage the old man’s family in a decade-long battle for a share in his estate. Jones conveys that passage of time with the cruel visual of a curtain showing Smith in peak pinup form, slowly replaced by a zaftig version of the same image against a backdrop of cheeseburger wallpaper. This marks the beginning of an inexorable decline as Anna Nicole, now addicted to painkillers, allows Stern to turn her life into what he bluntly calls a “yard sale.” When her quiet, sweet-natured son from her first marriage, Daniel (Nicholas Barasch), dies from an accidental overdose soon after the birth of his half-sister, that loss is the blow that finally crushes Smith.
In the opera’s most haunting moment, the deceased Daniel sticks his head out of a body bag to list the cocktail of pills, supplied by Stern, that he ingested. These are the only words he sings in the entire production.
Anna Nicole’s grief makes her an even more intense object of public scrutiny in the period leading up to her own death, at age 39. Given that this audaciously idiosyncratic chronicle of her sad life is played out as a garish cartoon for much of its duration, the gut-punch impact of its outcome is devastating. In the chilling finale, the music dies as we watch the prowling cameras step around her bagged corpse, continuing to rifle through her trash even after she’s gone.
Venue: BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn, New York (runs through Sept. 28)
Cast: Sarah Joy Miller, Susan Bickley, Rod Gilfry, Robert Brubaker, Nicholas Barasch, James Barbour, Mary Testa, Elizabeth Pojanowski, Ben Davis, Richard Troxell, John Easterlin
Director: Richard Jones
Music: Mark-Anthony Turnage
Libretto: Richard Thomas
Production designer: Miriam Buether
Lighting designers: Mimi Jordan Sherin, D.M. Wood
Costume designer: Nicky Gillibrand
Choreographer: Aletta Collins
Presented by Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York City Opera
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