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Anna Nicole’s Crazy Life Becomes Brutal Comedy at Covent Garden

Eva-Maria Westbroek
Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek. Photographer: Andrea Kremper/Royal Opera via Bloomberg

Feb. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Bad girls tend to get the best music in opera. Two-timing Manon has an unforgettable gavotte, and sex-for-hire Violetta celebrates free love with a great cabaletta. Now they have an unlikely sister.

The surgically enhanced, pill-popping Anna Nicole Smith, who died in 2007, has just joined their ranks in a world premiere at London’s Royal Opera House last night.

“Anna Nicole,’’ by composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas, should come with a warning for voyeurs. The rumors of explicit acts are false. The one moment of congress is carefully hidden. It’s true that there are some exaggeratedly false breasts, if that floats your boat.

What the opera really offers is a clever comic parable about the tragedy of commodifying human flesh.

The early scenes use broad-brush strokes to present a jokey portrait of Anna Nicole’s trailer-trash upbringing. When she joins a lap-dancing club as the only means to escape her minimum-wage life, her initial naivety and good-natured awkwardness are amusing too. Whatever Anna Nicole may have been like in real life, in the opera she’s an innocent abroad, a sympathetic simpleton struggling to support her son.

Then comes the operatic knife twist, the Faustian bargain which gives the work its pathos. To succeed as a dancer, she is told to get larger breasts. Seems like the beginning of a joke, doesn’t it? Not so. The extra weight skews her back, leaving her hooked to painkillers and other drugs for the rest of her life.

Pain, Shame

“Ease the pain, block the shame,’’ she sings while popping pills. She smiles to the cameras on the day she marries an elderly billionaire while wearing a comically huge wedding dress. The same cocktail of uppers and downers later kills her gentle son Daniel. It’s a bleak, heartrending end to a piece which sloughs off more and more of its comedy as it proceeds.

Turnage’s score seamlessly mixes jazz, blues and music-theater idioms, and underpins them all with percussion-rich orchestration.

Anna gets a beautifully lyrical number (“You need a little luck, girls’’), full of false hopes, after her breast job. Her mother has a vitriolic, expletive-rich tirade against men which, ironically, is set to a seductive waltz. The writing for chorus is expertly done too.

Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek sings with soaring power and superb diction as Anna. She’s energetic, naive, and hopeful, and her strained smile in the face of despair is touching. There’s great support from Gerald Finley as her boyfriend, and Alan Oke is terrific as her lively octogenarian husband.

Director Richard Jones brings a stylized look to the piece: It’s a gaudy world of “bigger is better’’ in everything from furniture to fake breasts. He keeps a firm tonal control over the blend of laughs and pathos too.

Could it be time for Manon to move over and welcome Anna into the fold?

Rating: ****.

“Anna Nicole” is in repertory through March 4 at the Royal Opera House, London.

Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

To contact the writer on the story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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