Photo credit: Stephanie Berger
City Opera may be on the brink of bankruptcy, but that didn't keep the company from performing its guts out last weekend in the final performances of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole, which closed Saturday night at BAM. I went to the Friday performance, and the sold-out house seemed riveted by the roman à clef about the former Playboy Playmate and Guess model Anna Nicole Smith, who died in 2007 of a drug overdose. Given the material, Anna Nicole could have easily slipped into salacious satire, and indeed there were plenty of laughs peppered throughout Richard Thomas' sparkling libretto. But wisely, the creators portrayed Smith as a tragic heroine struggling to pull herself and her young son out of poverty in only-in-America fashion: by milking the celebrity mill for all its worth. Call her a Cio-Cio-San for our times.
Anna Nicole is carried by its title character, sung here by the relatively unknown American soprano Sarah Joy Miller, who was onstage for the entire performance. What Miller lacked in vocal heft she more than made up for in theatricality: her brown eyes beaming cartoonishly large, her wild gestures in stiletto heels milking the crowd for laughs. But, Miller could also be tender and moving, as in her showstopping aria, "This Time is Mine," which in an instant lifts the opera out of parody and into tragedy.
Other standouts in the cast were baritone Rod Gilfry—who I last saw as the title character in Messiaen's epic Saint Francois in Amsterdam in 2008—as her Svengali lawyer/partner Stern who sells the pay-per-view rights to Anna Nicole's delivery (to a child which isn't his) for $1 million. Mezzo-Soprano Susan Bickley was Cassandra-fierce as Anna Nicole's pistol-packing mother, Virgie. And tenor Robert Brubaker, who plays Anna Nicole's elderly billionaire husband, J. Howard Marshall II, told members of the company that his line "Not dead yet!" was dedicated to them.
Director Richard Jones' sets and costumes were an over-the-top homage to American pop culture: monumental billboards advertising Wal-Mart and fried-chicken joints, faux-royal crests and golden toilet seats, strip joints and motel rooms filled with neon and mirrors. It fell somewhere between Nixon in China and Michael Mayer's Met production of Rigoletto, with maybe a bit of Frank Castorf's Bayreuth Ring thrown in.
What really makes Anna Nicole shine is Turnage's multifaceted score, which pulls in elements of jazz, blues, even Broadway, without ever losing its legitimacy as contemporary music. Most startling is that Turnage, one of Britain's leading composers—his new work, Frieze, will be premiered by the NY Phil this Thursday—has eschewed his normally spiky soundworld for lush, deeply affecting melodies that linger in the air long after they end.
If the fat lady has indeed sung—both on and off the City Opera stage—it's good to at least see her go out on top. More pics on the photo page.