Composer: Mark-Anthony Turnage
Conductor: Steven Sloane
Director: Richard Jones
Anna Nicole: Sarah Joy Miller
J. Howard Marshall II: Robert Brubaker
Stern: Rod Gilfry
Virgie: Susan Bickley
The first time I heard that a British opera was being written out of the tabloid-ready life of Anna Nicole Smith, the poor Texan backwater fast-food worker turned big city stripper turned popular Playboy playmate/model turned billionaire's trophy wife turned bloated pill popper turned overdose victim, I was skeptical. She may have lived fast and died young, but she definitely did not make a beautiful corpse. After Anna Nicole got its premiere in London though, the word was that she made a perfectly adequate subject for an opera, in a Cinderella-gone-wrong kind of way and with a little help from Mark-Anthony Turnage, reputedly one of the U.K.'s most adventurous composers.
Last summer my subscription to The New York City Opera had Anna Nicole as its first production of the 2013-2014 season, but it now seems that it also may be its last production for awhile as increasingly desperate requests for financial help from the endangered institution have been piling up in my Inbox. Depressing thoughts about the cultural vacuum its disappearance would create aside, I was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Tuesday night, feeling like a still slightly jet-lagged visitor among a large crowd of chatty local hipsters, but most of all extremely curious about what would come out of the whole endeavor.
When one thinks of Anna Nicole Smith's spectacular rise and fall, it is hard not to think "tacky". To the credit of its creators, the production did not go that easy route too many times. On the other hand, the bright pink curtain welcoming the audience to the otherwise rather dignified opera house for sure indicated that we were not in for a particularly high-brow evening either. But hey, as the chorus itself promised during the opening scene: "This is a unique story, so you won't be bored".
The story may not be that unique after all, however, it regularly made headlines in its own unique way. And this was probably due to the genuinely touching personality of its main character. Hence, the importance of finding the right singer for the part. The NYCO certainly hit the jackpot in that regard with American soprano Sarah Joy Miller, who not only brought a sweet personality to the role, but also happened to be blessed with an appealing body and an attractive voice. Her big aria, after Anna Nicole had finally become a bona fide bimbo extraordinaire, suggestively sashaying around a dance pole, now blessed with cascading golden locks, a sparking pink revealing bodice and, most of all, two humongous breasts, clearly demonstrated that a pretty girl could sing as well. Even in the most ridiculously tacky moments, such as her standing on top of a huge wedding cake in an equally huge puffy dress, complete with loads a diamonds and a tiara, she still projected the innocence of a little girl whose dreams had come true, even if the means to that end had not been that innocent (Cue to the ranch-earning oral sex scene).
She was well supported by American tenor Robert Brubaker, who was obviously having a ball playing J. Howard Marshall II, the fun-loving octogenarian oil billionaire who literally came from the sky to rescue and eventually marry her. Although the production could not help but dwell on the many differences between them, there were also subtle hints that this odd couple shared an at least semi-real bond.
A much creepier character was Anna Nicole's lawyer, manager and lover, the ready-made-for-talk-shows Stern, winningly impersonated by American baritone Rod Gilfry, who gave the part all the swagger and sleaziness he could muster, and there was plenty of it.
As Anna Nicole's tough-as-nail mom, and occasional voice of reason, Virgie, English mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley reprised the role she sang at the Royal Opera House and established a formidable, if sporadic, presence. In their short but powerful appearances, Richard Troxell and John Easterlin were spot-on as, respectively, Doctor Yes and Larry King.
The rapidly succeeding 16 scenes provided a fairly good narrative, although one had to deplore the omission of the whole Playboy episode, allegedly for copyright issues. But the show went on regardless, with some memorable vignettes such as a sizzling strip club with pole dancers so hot that a young, wide-eyed audience member in front of me just had to break the no-photo rule and take a quick, guilt-ridden picture of it. Or a resplendently marilynesque Anna Nicole singing a little ditty about the sound of Jimmy Choo shoes on the red carpet and asking who Icarus is in practically the same nouveau riche breath. The rock 'n' roll band - well, OK, trio - entertaining one of the couple's wildest partays, which included selected guests crawling on the floor to sniff the last bit of cocaine, was certainly a first in my dedicated opera-goer's experience.
There were also more meaningful elements, such as the all-black-clad camera-headed mutants that kept on following Anna Nicole everywhere she went once she had become famous, effectively turning paparazzi into vultures. Or her beloved but often neglected son, who grew up dutifully bringing his mom pills and pillows to relieve her constantly aching back. The ever-quiet character only got to make his presence heard once he was dead, hauntingly singing an impressively long list of the drugs he had been taking from his body bag. Anna Nicole ended up in a body bag too, blowing a final kiss to the audience, just like she did when she first appeared onstage.
The story may have been be simple and tawdry, but the music was not. Although at times it sounded too eclectic for its own good, lacking a defining center, its various influences, from jazzy sensuality to big band brashness, did a good job emphasizing the situations at hand. And, after all, what better way to efficiently convey the dramatic roller-coaster that was Anna Nicole's life than with a score bristling with complex harmonies and emotional immediacy? Under the energetic baton of Steven Sloane, the orchestra delivered a vibrantly colored performance of it.
So, could it be it for the New York City Opera? Please say it ain't so. If the packed audience's enthusiastic reaction on Tuesday night were any indication, there is a lot of love for the company out there, but there is also no guarantee that it will translate into enough financial support for the "People's Opera" to survive. Where's an actual sugar daddy when you really one?