Oke, Alan


FigaroWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Le nozze di Figaro

Glyndebourne, 2012 | Robin Ticciati, Michael Grandage, Sally Matthews, Vito Priante, Andrun Iversen, Lydia Teuscher, Isabel Leonard, Ann Murray, Andrew Shore, Sarah Shafer, Colin Judson, Alan Oke, Nicholas Folwell, Ellie Laugharne, Katie Bray | Opus Arte

Much like their recent production of Don Giovanni, Glyndebourne’s 2012 production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro updates the work to the 1960s, finding it to be a period that acts as a good modern equivalent for the changing social attitudes that are to be found in Mozart and Beaumarchais’ time. If it’s not quite a perfect fit here, it works well enough for the purposes of Mozart’s version of the work, which is less concerned with the social and political climate than the richness of human values that the work expresses. What is rather more important in Le nozze di Figaro then is how its characters are brought to life, and it’s clear from the superb casting here and the fine singing, that this is the principal strength of Glyndebourne’s new production.

It’s very easy to get complacent about yet another production of The Marriage of Figaro, but one can surely never come away from a performance of this remarkable work with anything but deep admiration and appreciation for the artistry of the work itself. It’s a masterfully constructed dramatic farce that nonetheless makes acute observations about human nature and interaction in relation to those important institutions of love and marriage. Le nozze di Figaro also has fully fleshed-out characters of real depth of personality and Mozart’s incomparable music that gives it another extra dimension, developing themes, connecting them, bringing a whole unity to the work with warmth and compassion. I doubt that any other composer, past or present, could have achieved what Mozart does with Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto and Beaumarchais’ play.

One can never become complacent about the work itself then, but having been fortunate to have only seen first-rate performances of The Marriage of Figaro, it’s easy to think that all the hard work has already been done by Mozart and Da Ponte. Far from it. More than anything else, this 2012 Glyndebourne production reminded me that not only are the singing performances vitally important (in what opera are they not?), but that it’s a work that is exceptionally demanding not only on one or two principal roles, but that practically every single role has to be carefully considered for the impact and the interaction they have with the other characters. Will Le nozze di Figaro work with a weak Susanna, Figaro, Almaviva or Countess? What about those “secondary” characters like Cherubino, Marcellina, Bartolo, Don Basilio and Barbarina? The work is undoubtedly strong enough to get along without luxury casting in the lesser roles, but imagine how it great it can be with it.

You only need listen to the music that Mozart has written for them to understand that all its roles are lovingly created and have an important part to play in the whole fabric of the work. That’s a lot of roles that it’s not only important to get right, but they have to be right with each other. That’s the brilliance of Mozart, and it’s one of his greatest advancements on the development of opera as an important dramatic artform. It’s not all about the arias - although even there The Marriage of Figaro has some of the greatest and most popular arias ever written - but the duets and the ensembles also contribute just as much to the work as a whole. In that respect, Le nozze di Figaro is not only a complete work of undisputed genius, but some 230 years later it’s still practically unsurpassed.

You can set the opera in just about any period then and get away with it, even with its references to ‘droit de seigneur’. There have always been sleazy bosses after all, and the 1960s is as good a setting then as any. The period however is not taken advantage of to any great extent here other than for purposes of style. In fact, other than showing an exaggerated lack of taste in the clothing styles with flowery wide-collar shirts and big hairdos, there’s a curious separation between the characters and the setting which, on the whole, remains for no discernible reason in a country manor in Seville. That’s the original setting of course, but it has no specific 60s context. If you had dressed the characters here in period costumes, the set - barring the appearance of a sports car during the overture - would have functioned just as well.

As you would expect from a Glyndebourne production however (and this is from the same team that put together the astonishing Billy Budd), the set design by Christopher Oram is impressive in its attention to detail. The locations are recreated with remarkable realism in the Moorish designs of the architecture, the tiles and the brickwork, and in the the lighting that casts warm orange-brown tones. The set rotates from one scene to the next fluidly, the lighting finding the perfect mood for each scene, the configurations of the rooms working to the requirements of the drama’s comic situations. The stage direction from Michael Grandage however seems a little detached and on the serious side, never allowing the figures room to abandon themselves to the glorious wealth of warm, funny and touching sentiments expressed in the work.

I think the same thing could be said about Robin Ticciati’s conducting. It’s a perfectly good account of the work, but it never reacts to the sentiments or the staging in a way that would bring out its full potential. Which is a little bit of a pity, because there’s an exceptional singing cast here that is more than capable of getting to the heart of Mozart’s delightful creations. Vito Priante is a big-voiced Figaro with the capability of being almost soulful in his delivery, while Lydia Teuscher is a comparatively lovely and delicate Susanna, innocent more than feisty. Sally Matthews gives us a wonderful melancholic Countess where everything that is essential comes through in the expression of her voice. Andrun Iversen’s Almaviva is more of a blustering buffoon than a sleazy predator, and his voice suits that kind of delivery as well as being well-suited to the Glyndebourne stage.

Proving that the secondary roles can raise this work to even greater heights, particularly when you have a strong Cherubino, Isabel Leonard knocked the socks off the Glyndebourne audience, and you can see why in her sparkling, bright performance with a voice of immense richness. The character parts of Bartolo, Barberina and Don Basilio were all delightfully played as well, but I was particularly delighted to see Ann Murray still looking and sounding wonderful as Marcellina. The video recording of the performance is excellent, the colour and the detail all rendered beautifully in the HD-image on the Blu-ray, with fine audio mixes. There are a couple of short features showing the work put into the props and sets, and interviews with the cast that consider the qualities of Mozart’s work itself. The Opus Arte dual-layer Blu-ray is all-region compatible, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

TempestThomas Adès - The Tempest

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2012 | Thomas Adès, Robert Lepage, Simon Keenlyside, Audrey Luna, Alan Oke, Isabel Leonard, Alek Shrader, Toby Spence, William Burden, Kevin Burdette, Iestyn Davies, Christopher Feigum, John Del Carlo | The Met Live in HD, 10th November 2012

Following the furore surrounding his controversial high-tech production of Wagner’s Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera across their past two seasons, Robert Lepage returns somewhat to his roots as a traditional theatre director for a work that may not be equal in scale and stature to Wagner’s epic work, but is ambitious and challenging nonetheless, to say nothing of a bit of a commercial gamble. Lepage, as was made clear repeatedly in interviews and in programme notes, has directed Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tempest‘ eight times in his career, so you would expect him to know what works and what doesn’t (something that might not have been so clear in his handling of the Ring). An opera based on ‘The Tempest‘ is however a different prospect altogether, particularly one that has been necessarily condensed and ‘translated into English’, and requires a very different approach to staging. Fortunately, in this production for the Metropolitan Opera, ambitiously broadcast live in HD to cinema theatres across the world, Lepage was considerate of the different requirements that opera and Shakespearean theatre demand. It’s fortunate also that composer Thomas Adès also has a very clear view of the work and brings it across marvellously and musically in The Tempest.

Shakespeare usually has to be considerably reworked when adapted to an opera, meaning that it is necessarily condensed, streamlined and stripped largely of its poetry. Having a kind of musical element of its own, ‘The Tempest‘ however would appear to be a work that is more open to musical adaptation than most other Shakespeare works. Considering its scope and range - taking in comedy, family drama and political intrigue - but most notably having a supernatural and musical element that takes in the spirits of the spheres through Ariel and the baseness of the earthy Caliban, the whole drama taking place on a magical island of “noises sounds and sweet airs” - The Tempest would appear to be both a challenge and a gift for a capable musician. Adès manages to integrate all the rich elements of Shakespeare’s work wonderfully, not just accompanying the various strands of comedy, drama and romance that are rather compressed in the dramatic playing, but making up for the lack of poetry in the libretto by deepening the sentiments through the musical dimension. It’s not always the most melodic of arrangements, but it’s wholly appropriate to the context of the scenes, never discordant and often quite beautiful in its symphonic sweep.

The most difficult element - from the point of view of composition, from the nature of the singing challenges and from the assault on the ears of the listener - is undoubtedly in the tricky characterisation of Ariel. It’s necessary that Ariel appear to be a spirit creature from another, higher dimension, but held under the power of Prospero the pain of his captivity and his desire to escape from earthly bonds should also be an element in the character’s make-up. Adès expresses this in the highest extremes of the soprano range, which is by no means easy on the ear or even entirely intelligible, but it does have an otherworldly quality. That however is just the most extreme example. Elsewhere Adès shows himself capable of strong individual characterisation in each of the roles and personalities, in the comedy of Stefano and Trinculo, in the romance of Miranda and Ferdinand, in the dark scheming of Antonio and Sebastian, and in the nobility of the King of Naples in his grief for Ferdinand whom he believes dead. What is marvellous about Adès’ writing for The Tempest is that he not only fully characterises and enriches expression of each individual character - without having recourse to themes or leitmotifs - but that he makes them coexist and work together. In drama that’s difficult enough, but to bring those musical elements together into a coherent piece is much more challenging. That’s however where opera traditionally excels and Adès shows wonderful facility for this necessary ability.

And then, of course, there’s Prospero, with his thoughts of revenge for having being usurped from the throne of Milan by his brother, his enslavement of Ariel and Caliban, his exercise of power over the island and his daughter Miranda, and the relinquishing of all those powers and claims by the end of the work. Not only must the development of Prospero’s character arc encompass all these elements, but his personality must be seen (and heard) to exert an influence over everything that happens - his watchful eye monitoring the activity of the crew that his storm has shipwrecked on the island. If the final realisation and capitulation of his powers still seems a little hurried and arrived at without too much deliberation or conflict, Adès nonetheless manages to characterise this as successfully as it could possibly be. Much inevitably depends on the quality of the singer, and Simon Keenlyside (reprising a role that he helped create in the original 2004 Covent Garden production of the work) is a commanding presence that brings Prospero to life and brings a necessary degree of humanity to the part. It’s an extremely challenging role - particularly in the singing - and Keenlyside did show a little strain in places, but nothing that couldn’t be seen as characterisation of Prospero’s own personal conflicts and dilemmas.

The singing and characterisation was marvellous almost right across the board here, and it went some considerable way towards making a difficult work much more accessible and enjoyable. Audrey Luna was simply astonishing as Ariel, as lithe and agile in her movements as in her voice (Lepage effectively keeping Ariel almost exclusively floating up and above or outside the drama as a mischievous but otherworldly sprite), and the casting of Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader as the beautiful couple of Miranda and Ferdinand - the great hope for the future - could hardly be more perfect. Leonard’s rich and luxurious mezzo-soprano was wonderfully expressive with clear diction and real strength of character, blending wonderfully with Shrader’s handsome tenor voice. Caliban might have been a little marginalised as a character here, never really working his way into the main drama, but Alan Oke made something wonderful of the role in his singing and performance, interacting well with the character pieces of Stefano and Trinculo. Countertenor Iestyn Davies - who made a strong impression in last season’s Rodelinda at the Met - again demonstrated a voice of incredible beauty and clarity. Adès’ writing is so strong that it provides notable roles also for Toby Spence (the original Ferdinand) as Antonio and particularly William Burden who gave wonderful expression to the grief-stricken sentiments of Naples. Only bass-baritone John Del Carlo seemed to struggle with the difficult range of the vocal writing of Gonzalo, but nonetheless sang his Act III solo piece (not quite an aria) very well.

If the singing went some way towards making a potentially difficult work more accessible, Robert Lepage’s stage direction and Jasmine Catudal’s clever set designs played their part in helping it all flow together marvellously. The importance of the direction shouldn’t be underestimated, as it any one element in the machinery of an opera can impact on all the others, and - working perfectly in accord with the music as opposed to a preconceived idea of Shakespearean ought to look like - Lepage’s contribution was a perfect fit for the work. The setting of the first act within a reproduction of the La Scala theatre certainly ties in with the notion of music, theatre, opera and even Prospero’s claim to be Duke of Milan, but more than being notional, it provided a conceptual approach to the theatricality of the staging, with figures slipping beneath the platform of the stage, and dropping into the prompter’s box. The Native Indian tattoos and markings on Prospero beneath his military greatcoat, with feathers woven into his hair, and the shaman-like appearance of the disinherited Caliban hinted at some of the underlying themes in the work relating to colonisation and exploitation of native populations, without needing to take this any further and over-complicate the progression of the drama.

The colour and spectacle of the production was well-served then by the simple magic of theatre props and machinery, the planks of the stage replacing the rather more high-tech planks of the unwieldy (but nonetheless impressive) Machine for Lepage’s Ring cycle - and it was a simplicity that worked alongside the music and with the themes here rather than try an impose a presence on them. As a consequence, with the composer Thomas Adès himself directing the orchestra from the pit, working to the strengths of the singing and to the movements on the stage, this felt like a truly complete opera production, one where all the elements work with and support the other to create that particular magic that comes only from this particular fusion of music and theatre - opera.

TritticoGiacomo Puccini - Il Trittico

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Lucio Gallo, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Alan Oke, Jeremy White, Ermonela Jaho, Anna Larsson, Irena Mishura, Elena Zilio, Elizabeth Sikora, Ekaterina Siurina, Francesco Demuro, Rebecca Evans, Gwynne Howell | Opus Arte

An essay in the booklet for the Blu-ray release of the Royal Opera House’s 2011 production of Puccini’s Il Trittico remarks that there’s always a temptation to try and find a common theme between the three short operas that the composer wrote to be performed together, but that essentially they were written mainly to complement each other only in so far as the contrast they provide. That still doesn’t stop producers (or those writing about the work) from trying to find connections between them. Antonio Pappano in his introduction here sees the overall theme as deception, which I like, and it’s a useful theme to keep in mind, but although there could be other commonalities found between the works - young love and dreams being stifled or weighed down by events from the past - the main uniting theme is indeed the diversity of the works. Il Trittico will make you laugh and it will make you cry - you can count on that - but, should you want to, there’s a wealth of riches to explore here in Puccini’s masterful scoring and the variety of themes that he covers.

The variety of the subjects and the manner in which they are written and played out however is more than just for the entertainment of the audience (although this is evidently the primary consideration and there is something for everyone here), but it seem to me that they are also purposely diverse in subject matter, tone and treatment in order to give Puccini as much scope as possible to stretch himself and develop into new musical areas that had been opened up in the post-Wagner world of 20th century opera. Even if the romantic melodrama of Il Tabarro or the tragic opera heroine theme of Suor Angelica are familiar areas for Puccini (the comedy of Gianni Schicchi is however another matter entirely), one can see that he is working musically outside the comfort zone of traditional Italian opera arrangements and arias, working within the constraints of the shorter form in order to concentrate on finding the purest expression of the dramatic and emotional content of the works.

Il Tabarro however is far from familiar Puccini. It is certainly a close relation to La Bohème, being set in Paris, concerned with the hopes and dreams of the lower classes looking for love and security in their lives, their romantic lives stifled by their poverty, and it even makes a few minor references to Mimi and the music of La Bohème behind the scenes, but Puccini’s mature musical perspective is quite different, darker and far heavier. Pappano makes reference to the influence of Debussy and impressionism, which is most obviously evident in the opening sounds of the canal dockyard blending into the music itself, creating a perfectly evocative atmosphere for the dark, misty setting, but the music throughout seems to express the underlying social context, the inner lives of the characters and their pasts, as much as it illustrates the dramatic events that occur in the present. There are no major arias, but the sense of their history and their social position as vagabonds, a life that is slowly grinding them down, is expressed in the singing and in the voices, the intensity of the emotion and expression of temperament as important as they actual words they sing, if not even more so. Puccini brings all that out, fully and with considerable depth, fitting it in with the dramatic developments, all within the compressed space of a one-act opera. It’s masterful.

The dark gritty realism extends through to the sets in Richard Jones’s production that recreates the dark Parisian streets at the banks of the Seine as effectively as Puccini’s score. The excellent lighting is particularly instrumental in establishing the mood. The cast too are terrific, able to spark life into these characters and reveal them in all their humanity. Eva-Maria Westbroek in particular is very strong as Giorgetta, with her Wagnerian range that still has a lovely lyricism. Gallo has the reputation of mugging characters, but he’s strong here as the dark and intense Michele. He doesn’t really have the depth of voice or the acting quality to reveal any unexpected qualities, but he sings the role quite well. There are no concerns at all with Aleksandrs Antonenko, who sings powerfully and brings out that extra dimension that Puccini scores in his revealing duet with Westbroek’s Giorgetta. If Il Tabarro is never thought of as the strongest section of Il Trittico, this production presents it as well as it can be done, Pappano in particular directing the orchestra of the Royal Opera House magnificently through the strains and the sweep of Puccini’s score.

If Il Tabarro has a kind of spiritual connection with La Bohème, the fatal tragedy of the romantic heroine of Suor Angelica is aligned closely with the circumstances and the fate of Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. If there are differences in the plot, and particularly in the cultural background and the individual circumstances of the central figures, at heart however the emotions and what engenders them is similar, and Puccini couches those female sentiments in much the same kind of musical language. There is however considerable maturity in the through composition of the opera and in Puccini’s attempt here not so much to accompany the action as much as describe the otherworldly aspects that drive it. Aware of the wide range of opportunities this offers - even in a short work of this length - Puccini doesn’t focus solely on the complications of Sister Angelica’s situation, but also delves into the inner lives, the playfulness, devotion, contemplation and secret desires of the other nuns, their conflict between earthly being and a search for heavenly grace all contributing to the fullness of the character study of Angelica.

Forced into a convent, having given birth to an illegitimate child that would bring shame to the noble family name that she belongs to, living in hope for some kind of news from the family that has disowned her, the developments when combined with a religious experience could certainly tip the work over into high melodrama, particularly when scored with such feeling by Puccini. I’m sure there are many who feel that this is indeed the case with Suor Angelica, but it’s clear that Puccini is seeking to express a deeper, more complex view of extreme very specific female emotions where a sense of motherhood has been denied, caught up in religious devotion and monastic discipline. That balance also needs to be maintained in the stage presentation, particularly the handling of the dramatic conclusion, and Richard Jones managed to bring out that inner world described in the music well, with subtle but telling touches. More important than anything else however is the performance of Suor Angelica herself, and Ermonela Jaho not only sings it exceptionally well, but she is completely involved in a role that demands acting of concentrated intensity.

Buoso Donati has just died, his family and loved ones surrounding him, but in the third part of Puccini’s Il Trittico, Gianni Schicchi, this is not the usual tragic opera deathbed scene, and if there are any tears shed by the assembled mourners it’s on account of their being disinherited in the old man’s will, while it’s more likely to be tears of laughter on the part of the audience (and that’s no exaggeration). The comic opera is certainly not a style you would associate with Puccini, but his treatment of the humour in Gianni Schicchi is nothing short of brilliant. Closer to Verdi’s Falstaff than say Donizetti’s clever but broader slapstick, there’s no heavy comic underscoring here (whatever that might entail, I’m not sure), but rather an almost furtive, subtle, insidious expression of the nature this mixed bag of greedy, grasping, backstabbing, moneygrubbers in all their scheming self-importance. It’s dazzling to hear how a composer of Puccini’s experience and maturity handles himself in this unfamiliar register, from the false sobs scored into the opening notes, through the knowing self-parody of heartfelt (yet still justly famous) arias that don’t express ‘Addio del passato’ as much as ‘Addio to the money’, to the frantic jostling for positions of influence of this motley mob and their eventual well-deserved comeuppance.

Richard Jones’s setting for the Royal Opera House production again fits quite admirably, finding its own sense of style without having to adhere to the period. Somehow the slick sixties suits and garish dresses express the tasteless vulgarity of the rich Donati family and their brood, as does the tacky flowered wallpaper Buoso’s over-sized bedroom. There’s no sharp spiv suit either for the scheming lawyer Gianni Schicchi, but a suitably seedy quality nonetheless to his open-shirted swagger, looking as if he’s just been dragged away from a different kind of bar than the one expected for his profession, differentiating his social class from the pretensions of the Donati family. It’s spot-on characterisation, wonderfully played and sung by the cast - Lucio Gallo switching register wonderfully from the very different role of Michele in Il Tabarro. As Antonio Pappano notes however in the introduction, the comedy in Gianni Schicchi relies greatly on the timing, and while this production gets those laughs, when compared to the English Touring Opera’s recent hilarious production that is still fresh in my mind, Jones’s stage direction doesn’t always make the most of the potential that Puccini’s score and the witty situations of the work present.

It’s Antonio Pappano’s contribution to the production as a whole however that proves to be the critical factor in its overall resounding success. All this richness and diversity, the sense of fun and drama, along with the serious musicological insight and consideration of the deeper qualities of the work is borne out in Pappano’s conducting of the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who give a mesmerising performance. With excellent casting and singing, and an appropriate staging, you really couldn’t ask for more.

Opus Arte however also package the set extremely well. In addition to the impeccable technical presentation on Blu-ray, with a crystal clear High Definition transfer and outstanding HD sound mixes in LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that reproduce the music and the singing exceptionally well, each of the three hour-long operas are presented separately and given their own optional introduction that briefly sets out the premise and the treatment. An additional Extra Feature follows Lucio Gallo through make-up, warm-up and last-minute preparations with the conductor for his two roles as Michele and Gianni Schicchi. The full-HD Blu-ray is region-free, dual layer BD50, with English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles.

AnnaNicoleMark-Anthony Turnage - Anna Nicole

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 2011 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Alan Oke, Gerald Finley, Susan Bickley, Loré Lixenberg, Peter Hoare, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Allison Cook, Andrew Rees, Grant Doyle, Wynne Evans | Opus Arte

Dealing with a low-brow subject, treating it to an outlandish and tasteless staging, with crude language and bad-taste humour, there is a danger that Anna Nicole, an opera by Mark Anthony Turnage about the former Playboy model who died of a drug overdose in 2007, could be accused of making Eurotrash out of American Trash, but the language and the staging befits the tone of its subject. The barrage of rhyming couplets in the libretto from Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer the Opera) may clearly signal their intention to rhyme at the end with four-letter words and other mildly shocking profanities, but at the same time there is wit and pathos here in a libretto that actually manages to cut through the niceties directly to harsh crude reality of the circumstances of Anna Nicole Smith’s life, unpalatable though that might be to the average opera-going audience. Benjamin Britten and particularly Billy Budd comes to mind in the use of language, in its subject – which is also about a kind of loss of innocence on a bigger level than just the personal – and in Turnage’s score, which also adopts his usual jazz and American influences, successfully finding the right tone for each occasion.

The colourful, tastefully tacky set-designs by Richard Jones also adopt the right tone with plenty of eye-catching sights not commonly seen in an opera house, including a sequence in a lap-dancing parlour replete with artificial breast-enhanced women twirling themselves gymnastically and provocatively from poles. The decision to present the opera as if it were a reality-TV show in which a chorus of TV hosts interview Anna Nicole Smith, already dead but looking back over her life and tracing the path from smalltown girl to media celebrity that will ultimately lead to her destruction, is a masterstroke and it imbues the piece with a slightly sinister edge that grows as the opera proceeds. The tone darkens considerably by the second half, when it does indeed become a tragedy, as the people in Smith’s life disappear to be replaced by masses of ominous black figures with TV cameras for heads.

Antonio Pappano, conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, does well to allow the music score to assert its presence and not be overshadowed by the spectacle or the libretto. Eva-Maria Westbroek is marvellous in the title role, and well supported by Gerald Finlay and Alan Oke. As more of a Wagnerian soprano, Westbroek is not really tested by the limited singing demands of the role, but she sings exceptionally well and manages to bring out the inherent humanity of her character, never letting her be merely an icon, nor indeed, allowing the performance to descend into parody. Whether the opera ultimately has anything new to say or whether it touches on anything deeper in its subject – if indeed there is anything deeper to be drawn from its subject – is questionable, but Anna Nicole demonstrates nonetheless that opera can still be a vital artform to address contemporary subjects in a powerful manner that can connect with a modern audience.

On Blu-ray from Opus Arte, the opera – opening with a legal disclaimer that it is “not intended to be an actual factual depiction of any person” – looks every bit as bold as it should, the striking colours deeply saturated, with strong blacks and contrasts, and a good level of detail. This often looks just stunning, and it is well filmed, picking out the singers at the right moments, while also allowing the overall impact of the set to be appreciated. The audio tracks in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 are also effective in allowing the detail of the musical arrangements to come through. Subtitles are in English (so you can check that they actually sang what you thought they sang but couldn’t quite believe), French, German and Spanish. Aside from a Cast Gallery, the only other extra on the disc is a brief Production Report (8:25), introduced by Pappano, which nonetheless covers the development of the opera well with interviews with Turnage, Thomas and Westbroek.

AnnaNicoleMark-Anthony Turnage - Anna Nicole

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London | Antonio Pappano, Richard Jones, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Alan Oke, Gerald Finley, Susan Bickley, Loré Lixenberg, Peter Hoare, Rebecca de Pont Davies, Allison Cook, Andrew Rees, Grant Doyle, Wynne Evans | World Premiere - February 17th, 2011

A few eyebrows will have been raised, and no little amount of scepticism expressed, when it was announced that Mark-Anthony Turnage would be writing an opera for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden about Anna Nicole Smith, a former Playboy model who died of a drug overdose in 2007. In reality, however there’s nothing at all new about opera dealing with women who live scandalous lives and come to an untimely end. If Turnage’s Anna Nicole is unlikely however to be considered a masterpiece on the scale of Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, La Traviata or Lulu, it at least has the advantage of dealing with a contemporary subject with the kind of social lifestyle and aspirations that a modern audience can relate to more easily. And if the merits of Anna Nicole as an opera can certainly be questioned, there is at least no doubt, judging from the headlines and media attention that it has generated, that is indeed a worthy subject of great interest to the general public.

Commissioned by the Royal Opera House under the direction currently of Antonio Pappano – a great supporter of opening up opera to a wider audience – the general public would at least have been no doubt familiar with the subject of the opera, Anna Nicole Smith, and have some familiarity with the nature of her “career” and the circumstances of her death at the age of only 39. What was rather less certain was the tone that would be adopted by Mark-Anthony Turnage (Greek, The Silver Tassie) – a composer who can be rather experimental in his work, and is known for incorporating jazz and other forms of modern music into his compositions. It didn’t take too long for it to be established that the tone of the opera would be heavily influenced by the choice of Richard Thomas as librettist, the resulting barrage of rhyming couplets, with a high swearword quotient, bring Anna Nicole closer to Thomas’ work on Jerry Springer the Opera than to Turnage’s Greek.

Initial and surface impressions however prove to be deceptive, for while Anna Nicole Smith’s early life, her escape from the “shithole” backwater of Mexia (pronounced Mu-HAY-ah, we are told, as if it gives the town some kind of distinction) and her first marriage to Billy Smith is very much the kind of material that US daytime TV shows thrive on, it does nonetheless have a relevance to how a large proportion of society live and it reflects their aspirations, unpalatable thought they may appear to an opera-going audience. Just as significantly, the manner in which the opera is initially presented and the tone it strikes is vitally important, and indeed it ought to match and be appropriate to the content. The decision then to present it through the medium of a chorus of TV hosts to whom Anna Nicole, already dead but looking back over her life in the manner of a reality TV show and tracing the path that will ultimately lead to her destruction, is a masterstroke, imbuing the piece with a slightly sinister edge that grows as the opera proceeds. The opera darkens considerably by the second half, when it does indeed become a tragedy, as the people in her life disappear to be replaced by masses of ominous black figures with TV cameras for heads.

AnnaNicole

While there are certainly plenty of eye-catching sights in the imaginative, colourful, tastefully tacky set-designs (by Richard Jones) to provide entertainment, with strong language and even a sequence in a lap-dancing parlour replete with breast-enhanced women twirling themselves gymnastically and provocatively from poles – all things that are, I think it’s safe to say, not all that common on the stage of the Royal Opera House and likely therefore to generate interest and headlines it’s easy to be distracted from what is going on musically and in the opera as a whole. Richard Thomas’ rhyming couplets, which deliberately clearly signal their intentions to rhyme at the end with four-letter words and other mildly shocking profanities, actually manage to cut through the niceties directly to harsh realities of the circumstances of Anna Nicole’s life in a tone that is appropriate and understandable to a modern-day audience. It’s reality-TV language, but there’s something in the phenomenon and popularity of reality-TV as a representation of the American Dream that is worth examining, and Thomas’ libretto gets to the hard truths and the tragedy of it all, wrapping it up cleverly in pithy, satirical and witty phrases.

It’s easy also to be distracted from what Turnage is doing musically, but he, likewise, succeeds allowing the nature of the opera’s subject to establish the correct tone rather than imposing his own upon it. In doing so moreover, Turnage nonetheless finds a perfect expression for his own musical language and the often American influences that he draws from and incorporates into his music. Anna Nicole Smith’s leaving of Mexia (pronounced Mu-HAY-ah), for Huston, where she works in a Wal-Mart store, is set to a blues rhythm that matches the zombie-like movements of its employees, a swinging jazz percussion accompaniment is used for the strip-club scene, while other scenes evoke George Gershwin. Antonio Pappano, conducting the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, succeeded in allowing the music score to assert its presence at such times, darkening the tone considerably in the tragedy of the Second Act, by which stage the audience were thoroughly in the grip of the piece and solemnly mindful of where it was leading. Much credit for the embodiment of the tragedy that Anna Nicole’s life would represent has to go to the Eva-Maria Westbroek. As a Wagnerian soprano, her voice wasn’t at all tested by the limited singing demands of the role, but she sang exceptionally well and managed to bring out the inherent humanity of her character, never letting her be merely an icon, nor indeed, allowing it to descend into parody.

Whether Anna Nicole is ultimately considered a success as an opera – it received a very warm reception at its World Premiere from the audience at Covent Garden and a guardedly positive response from the national press – it is at least a success as far as the Royal Opera House is concerned, selling out its initial short run of six shows, but more importantly generating more interest and front page headlines than any other important opera event, premiere or any drawing of the biggest names in the opera to the house have achieved. Beyond its artistic merits, whether the opera ultimately has anything new to say or whether it touches on anything deeper in its subject – all of which are debatable and subjective – what Anna Nicole demonstrates is that opera can still be a vital artform that can address contemporary subjects in a powerful manner that connects with a modern audience.