Sunday, 27 February 2011
Elegising the vibe
It's actually something about 'harshing the vibe' which a transfigured Royal Opera Chorus sings in the company's smash-hit unveiling of Turnage's Anna Nicole. Librettist Richard Thomas certainly has an energetic finger on the pulse of American patois and cliche, and the lively filth which strews the racy first act doesn't outstay its welcome as did the childish repetitions of the tedious Jerry Springer: the Opera.
Plus, of course, Anna Nicole has much better music. Better even than I thought I was going to get this time round from the fitfully brilliant Turnage. It was back to the febrile pop-synthesis of his first great success, based on Berkoff's Greek, rather than the would-be respectability of The Silver Tassie, with its unforgiveably bad trenches scene redeemed by some superb music in the last two acts. But above all, it struck me how Turnage was tapping into what's always been his deepest suit. In amongst the fluent big-band false highs and the trashy neon there pulses the elegiac saxophone-drenched music which made me want to sob in his concert-hall masterpiece for jazz group and orchestra Blood on the Floor.
And this makes sense. In the lamenting slow movements of that work, he grieved for the brother who died of a heroin overdose. That's possibly why the most moving scene - and there are quite a few - in Anna Nicole is the one in which the misguided model's teenage son Daniel (Dominic Rowntree) comes back to life and sings a little list of all the drugs in the book. It actually works better, I think, than the abrupt end of the opera, but that's not bad either. Rowntree as Daniel is pictured below among Bill Cooper's production shots for the Royal Opera in the scene where Eva-Maria Westbroek's sympathetic-from-the-start heroine still craves the public adulation while her scumbag lawyer-boyfriend Stern (Gerald Finley, still too nice as always) plots the ultimate exploitations in another subcutaneously wonderful set-piece.
Did I say sympathetic-from-the-start? Well, I'd never have believed it, but the morality-tale model who crashed and burned so publicly does what she never did in any of the tabloid reports and makes us understand her own particular road to an American-dream fast buck. That's partly due to the goofy, Marilynesque charm Westbroek applies, which is never there in any of the real-life photos (I've not seen footage of ANS in action).
You do really believe that as a mother, she did what she could in her own uncomprehending way; that the marriage to nearly-nonagenarian J Howard Marshall II (Alan Oke, excellent in the role that Philip Langridge would have played so well) was clear-eyed on both sides; and the grind of low wages is, in any case, brilliantly summed up in a bluesy procession of Houston WalMart zombies.
There was never going to be any doubt that the winning team of Pappano, Richard Jones and top singers - a recipe so brilliantly served up this time last year in their perfect production of Prokofiev's The Gambler - would do it all the fullest justice. Jones adds to his armoury of Smileys and animals (this shot, I think, is by Tristram Kenton, who sees more of the bigger picture)
an ever-waxing team of sinister black cameraheads, and as usual knits everything together with splendid symmetry. Pappano seemed to believe in what he was conducting - the big Act 2 interlude burns - and the brass's big band sound was worthy of John Wilson. The ensemble includes some of the music-theatre names Jones likes to work with, and there's a blazing turn from Sue Bickley as Anna Nicole's morality-chorus Ma (pictured below with Westbroek).
In fact those two set me thinking: the Pappano-Jones partnership's next venture HAS to be the Brecht-Weill Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Westbroek would play Jenny, possibly to Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts's Jimmy Mahoney (give the guy a break, Covent Garden). And now that Anja Silja's just that bit too old, Bickley would play the Widow Begbick. That would be the perfect follow-up to this very Weill-for-the-millennium show.
Which, by the way, is very definitely an opera in its fluid/abrupt quick-changes as well as the demands it places upon the singers and orchestra. You may not come out singing the tunes - except the deliberately and ironically skewed homage to Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man - but melodic lines there are, and often very beautiful ones. Even if the end result is hardly profound - nor is it meant to be - the show's demands are too complex for the extra-operatic West End rep, and I'm sure that Jones, Pappano and Turnage will keep it to themselves at the high level it's given here. But it will be back, it looks like it's going to be filmed, and no doubt it will make it to the Met, too.