Not the usual crowd at this evening’s season opener at Covent Garden. To get in, you had to be under 26 or a student – exceptions were made for the press! The Royal Opera has a new student scheme, and this was its grand unveiling. If you liked this, the thinking goes, you’ll come back for more. Programming Turnage’s Anna Nicole for such an event was a brave decision but a good one too. This opera looks and sounds unlike any other, yet it is very much within the traditions of the genre, and it might just be the one to win over new audiences.

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna Nicole) © Bill Cooper
Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna Nicole)
© Bill Cooper

Commissioned by the Royal Opera and first performed here in 2011, this is the first revival, although it has also been staged in Germany and America. Has it dated? The pop references haven’t – mentions of Barack Obama and eBay don’t yet need scholarly explanations in the programme. (Instead we get essays on celebrity culture from the editor of Time Out and a disturbingly detailed piece on boob jobs by an eminent plastic surgeon.)

Much of this opera relies on shock tactics, which dull with repetition. Turnage and his librettist, Richard Thomas, seem intent on ridiculing the pomp of the venue (and audience?) with the profanity of what they present onstage – language-wise, we are in Malcolm Tucker territory here. But it remains powerful, thanks to the glitzy staging, all bright lights and slick choreography. Everything is immaculately prepared; this is clearly a costly and time-consuming work to present well, and Royal Opera has again lavished its resources. Full credit too to Antonio Pappano and his orchestra for fully getting into the spirit.

Musically, this opera is impressive, but it is continuously let down by Thomas’ libretto. The text is structured in rigorously rhyming couplets that give the composer little room for his more fluid rhythmic style. He finds ways round the problems it causes, but the result is a musical sophistication that jars against the primitive literary style. The narrative gets off to a shaky start, and the first twenty minutes or so are stubbornly prosaic, as the early years of Anna Nicole’s life are explained.

The two acts divide roughly into a comedy and a tragedy, the first, all strip clubs and boob jobs, is played for laughs (cheap ones mostly), while the second, with its court battles and drug overdoses, is more sombre. Dramatically, the work finds its direction in this second act, the lead roles become more than the caricatures we are presented with earlier on, and the music offers some genuine compassion. The issue of media intrusion also comes into better focus: at the end of Act I, a television camera is introduced as a mute character, a dancer with an old-fashioned camera as a mask. These dancers increase in number throughout Act II, until the end, when Anna Nicole’s own death takes place on a stage completely crowded with them. An effective device.

Susan Bickley (Virgie) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna Nicole) © Bill Cooper
Susan Bickley (Virgie) and Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna Nicole)
© Bill Cooper

As before, the show revolves around Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role. She’s got it all, the looks, the voice, the stage presence, and she makes this part her own. It’s a stunning achievement, and the opera is worth seeing for her alone. The main cast change for this second run is Rod Gilfry, who replaces Gerald Finley as Stern, Anna Nicole’s lawyer. Gilfry is good, he’s convincing and strong of voice, but he’s not in the same league as Finley. The other main part is Anna Nicole’s mother, Virgie, sung again by Susan Bickley. She is meant to be the voice of moral authority in the piece (she’s a policewoman and appears in uniform throughout), but there isn’t  much morality to be had here, making the role slightly redundant. Even so, Bickley finds what emotion there is to be had. Also returning is the ever-versatile Alan Oke in the role of the sugar daddy, J. Howard Marshall II. He sings it well and thoroughly convinces as the priapic octogenarian.

One of the strengths of the libretto is the parade of caricature villains it presents in the minor roles, none particularly complex, but all entertaining, and all well played. Wynne Evans may have found his métier as the pompous mayor of Anna Nicole’s hometown. Doctor Yes, the plastic surgeon, is sung by Andrew Rees, who makes the most of his showstopper. And Peter Hoare does an excellent Larry King (one of the scenes in the second act is a recreation of his chatshow).

<i>Anna Nicole</i> at The Royal Opera © Bill Cooper
Anna Nicole at The Royal Opera
© Bill Cooper

Anna Nicole is quite an experience. It’s certainly original, and is continuously entertaining, if occasionally overwhelming both the ear and the eye. But it is a confused work that doesn’t quite know what it’s trying to say. If it is straight comedy, as it seems for much of the first act, then it is shown to be in very poor taste by the second. But if it is a morality tale, then the message is lost. Is it a critique of the media? Of celebrity culture? If so, it seems to celebrate and participate as much as it condemns.

Whichever way, it found an appreciative audience this evening. The comedy of the first act worked all the better for the belly laughs that followed each gag. And the emotional scenes towards the end played to an audience that was clearly drawn into the story and suffering with its characters. The enthusiastic responses on Twitter suggest it has already made a good number of converts.

***11