One of the most disingenuous- and most pompous- of critical clichés is the 'I really wanted to like it' review, which usually means 'I was looking forward to hating it and hurrah, I did'.
But now I have to write one of my own, although there's no disingenuousness in my saying that I really, really wanted to like 'Anna Nicole'. And although I didn't hate it, I certainly didn't like it anywhere near as much as I wanted to.
That makes me sad partly (mainly?) because I don't want to be allied with the people who wanted it to fail. The mere existence of the work illustrates what is, for me, one of the most important of artistic principles- that great art can be made out of any subject, that any story can be made worth the telling. We can all give our examples (perhaps the most famous being that Godot is a play in which nothing happens, twice). So I have no sympathy at all with those who believe that dramatising Anna Nicole Smith's life is a Vulgar Desecration Of Our Holy Lyric Art, and in fact I think in the main that they are philistine snobs who are going to have a heart attack if anyone ever tells them about 'Lulu' (that's the opera, btw, although they probably wouldn't like the other Lulu much either).
Plus, I admire everyone involved. Mark-Anthony Turnage wrote 'The Silver Tassie', so his place in my personal pantheon is safe. Richard Thomas wrote the wonderful 'Jerry Springer', so ditto. The production is slick, smooth and clever, the cast unimpeachable. But, the thing is, I just didn't care. Two people die in this opera, a fact which was more affecting in the programme synopsis than it was on stage, and that, kids, is a problem.
The problem lies largely, I think, with Thomas' contribution. It's all very meta, very ironic, commenting on and contextualising every event rather than just letting it happen. We're never simply told a story- we're told we're being told a story, and then, we're told what it meant. But, crucially, we already know the story and we already know its implications. Nobody left the ROH tonight thinking 'Good God, I had no idea women were objectified in our society!' or 'Wow, being famous for being famous sure has a potential downside!' and it was the opera's lack of anything new or insightful to say about the sad, inevitable decline of its heroine which was its major disappointment. The only thing which could have saved the story from its familiarity would have been a hefty emotional kick- after all, we know what's going to happen to Gilda and Mimi, too- but the libretto opts for cool detachment from the start, never a good mood to set if you're looking for withers to be wrung. No decision has been made as to whether the heroine is amoral or admirable, whether we're supposed to root for her or judge her. There's not even any real ambiguity about her portrayal- just some fairly brutal, unearned gear changes between 'isn't she empty?' and 'isn't she tragic?'.
And while it's funny at times, it's not funny enough. Sondheim's set the bar pretty high for lyricists, and that means we all know that merely rhyming is not enough, especially if you can spot what's coming. When a group of women at a cosmetic surgery sing, crowbarishly, about being 'restless' we're not going to coo with delight when the rhyme turns out to be 'breastless', to give just one example. Thomas overuses the arch anti-lyric, too. 'We're lapdancers/We dance in laps' or 'It's a red carpet/It's a carpet/ That's red'. That kind of gag works once, if you're lucky, and there are a few too many iterations of it here. In defence of the jokes, though, some of them hit the spot dead on, quite an achievement when the surtitles blow every punchline twenty seconds before it's delivered.
Musically things were better. Without access to a score I've only heard once, I'm not going to attempt the kind of musicological analysis other people will do much better. What I will say is that, as in 'Greek' and 'The Silver Tassie', Turnage is brilliant at creating a musical language which defines the world his characters live in, and which defines them. There are definite personalites to the scoring of each character; Anna's melodic language is different from her mother's; her husband's different from her lawyer's. This ought to go without saying, but it's rare enough in even the most celebrated of operas to merit a mention.
What these singers were doing in it is perhaps another matter. Don't get me wrong- there wasn't a performance among them that was less than excellent, but why we needed a Minnie, an Ariadne as Anna, and an Onegin as the lawyer is beyond me. None of the MT professionals I know would have any problems singing this score. Don't get me wrong, part the second- I'm not suggesting, as others have, that this is a musical. It's just that it seems rather perverse to have cast such opulent voices and then given them not much to sing. As my friend John mischievously pointed out, the role of Anna Nicole would not stretch Danielle de Niese; it's not as big a sing as Despina. Eva Maria Westbroek was as terrific as everyone has told you, but it must have felt a bit like a night off. Gerald Finley, too, was vocally and dramatically underused in the musically and theatrically slim part of the Svengali-like lawyer. As the octogenarian husband, Alan Oke had a great deal of fun, although his healthy voice was at odds with his frail physicality (has anyone suggested it for Placido...? Hem hem).
There's nothing bad about Anna Nicole. But it's not as good as it could have been, not as good as we needed it to be. I don't see much life for it beyond this run. If opera is to remain as robust and contemporary as theatre and not dwindle into a succession of glorious museum pieces, issues such as celebrity, the morality of media voyeurism, addiction, feminism and social mobility are exactly the kind of things it should be grappling with. 'Anna Nicole' had the potential to do all that, and while it's not the shabby little shocker some people gleefully predicted, it's a missed opportunity. Slick, professional, interesting and intelligent, it nonetheless ends up taking aim at a very stationary target, and hitting it flabbily.