Bad girls, Bad girls: Turnage’s witty tragedy “Anna Nicole” mirrors the looming fate of New York City Opera
Girls gone bad have been an operatic mainstay since the form’s fledgling days: think of Monteverdi’s Poppea or the witches and schemers (Alcina, Agrippina, Cleopatra) who sashay their way through Handel’s operas. The display of license undone is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too strategy for the powers that be, allowing for both titillation and social containment, exploitation and a veneer of probity.
Anna Nicole, the 2011 opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage with a witty and outrageously vulgar libretto by Richard Thomas, is a bawdy addition to this venerable tradition. The opera, heard Thursday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is based freely on the life of bad girl Anna Nicole Smith, the erstwhile lap dancer, Playboy model, and reality-television performer whose thirty-nine turbulent years ended in a prescription-drug haze, amidst a flurry of paternity claims for her infant daughter.
The title character’s train wreck of a life mirrors the plight of New York City Opera, the company that has co-produced its United States premiere along with the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Earlier this month NYCO artistic director and general manager George Steel announced that the company needed to raise $7 million by the end of September to go forward with its remaining 2013–14 productions, and an additional $13 million by year’s end to fund future seasons. At filing time, those goals seemed far out of reach, and some commentators have questioned whether NYCO in its current, drastically scaled-down form would even be missed.
If Anna Nicole were to be the company’s swan song, the city’s cultural life would be the poorer for it. Fiscal and institutional mishaps notwithstanding, the company has mounted vibrant, memorable work in recent years, and this show is no exception. Richard Jones’s madcap production, created for the Royal Opera, replaces Covent Garden’s crimson curtain with a retina-searing Barbie-pink expanse and the royal monogram with that of Anna Nicole regina. The opera closes with the noise of modern-day carrion birds: dancers in black body suits with enormous cameras for heads who rustle through the dead woman’s garbage in search of posthumous tabloid trash.
In between, sixteen energetic tableaux tell Anna Nicole’s story in flashback, from her early days in Texas longing to leave behind her existence as a fast-food waitress and Walmart drone, to her marriage to octogenarian billionaire J. Howard Marshall II, and on to her drug-addled, made-for-TV decline. What keeps Anna Nicole from being merely sensationalistic is the protagonist’s knowing embrace of her fate. When she confers with the plastic surgeon who engineers her pneumatic bosom, he warns her offhandedly of the chronic back pain that it will bring. Near the end of Act I, the perpetually eager-to-please Anna Nicole recognizes in a fleeting moment of self-awareness and rage that pills alone make her physical and psychic pain bearable. She swallows them anyway, and at opera’s end ingests a smorgasbord of tablets as her body bag is zipped up.
That dark instant of awareness gives Sarah Joy Miller’s Anna Nicole tragic stature. She plays the starlet as a twitchy, blinking, kewpie doll of a heroine with a ravenous hunger for affection and approval. Miller’s creamy lyric soprano is a size or two too small for the role, making for some strained and watery phrases early on. But she dispatches with eloquence and panache the roulades that are Anna Nicole’s inarticulate cries for chemical fixes, acknowledgment, and love.
As Marshall, Robert Brubaker creates a physical and vocal portrait of decrepitude that only an artist at the height of his powers can summon, and he rocks the feeble billionaire’s copper mylar track suit. (Nicky Gillibrand’s garish costumes, from fat-encrusted fast-food aprons to Anna Nicole’s bubblegum-pink bustier, are brilliant, as are Miriam Buether’s sets.) Rod Gilfrey commands the stage with reptilian charm and fluorescent-white dental veneers as Stern, Anna Nicole’s lawyer, lover, and addiction enabler.
Anna Nicole has a large cast, and other standouts include John Easterlin as a gaseous Larry King; Bridget Hogan, Marti Newland, Basia Ravi, and Megan Scheibal as Anna’s fellow lap dancers; Christina Sajous as a bold and imperious Blossom; Susan Bickley as Anna Nicole’s mother Virgie, once or twice truly loving in her hectoring and opportunistic way; Elizabeth Pojanowski as Anna Nicole’s needy and dentally challenged cousin Shelley; and Mary Testa as her kindly Aunt Kay. James Barbour, Stephen Wallem, and Richard Troxell turn in strong (and unsettling) cameos as Anna Nicole’s father, a trucker, and her plastic surgeon.
Turnage’s score opens with an ear-splitting dissonance and darts in perpetual motion among various idioms of American popular music including country, blues, and lounge-lizard jazz. (Think Leonard Bernstein without the Mahlerian grandeur or soaring melodic gift.) Its high points include Anna Nicole’s keening lament for the son Daniel she had borne as a teenager, who dies shortly after she gives birth to her daughter; Daniel’s own dazed litany of pharmaceuticals, intoned over chilly, unsettling chords; and the cataclysm of electronic chirps that accompanies Anna Nicole’s passing less from this earthly life than from her virtual simulacrum. Steven Sloane leads a lively reading of the score, and the NYCO chorus under Bruce Stasyna perform superbly as the media voyeurs who feed on and help craft the sorry spectacle that is Anna Nicole’s life.
If NYCO’s fundraising campaign is successful, its season will continue in February with Johan Christian Bach’s Endimione at El Museo del Barrio. If not, Anna Nicole will stand as a reminder of two untimely ends: those of a girl gone bad who sought a better life in all the wrong ways, and of a battered opera company that went down despite having life and pluck to spare.
New York City Opera performs Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House on September 21, 24, 25, 27, and 28. Tickets and information: bam.org; 718.636.4100.
Marion Lignana Rosenberg is a New York-based critic and translator. mondo-marion.com.