Rees, Andrew


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.

ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca

NI Opera, 2011 | Nicholas Chalmers, Oliver Mears, Lee Bisset, Jesús León, Paul Carey Jones, Brendan Collins, John Molloy, Andrew Rees | Derry-Londonderry, 1st April 2011

Playing for only three performances in Derry rather than what would seem to be the more natural venue of the Grand Opera House in Belfast, a production of Puccini’s Tosca would seem to be a relatively low-key event and a fairly conventional popular opera for the inaugural production of the newly-formed Northern Ireland Opera. The choices made in the location and the opera itself however proved to be far from just going for a safe choice, the timing of the event coinciding with a security alert on the day that I attended adding a further unpredictable element to the proceedings that made it an occasion that was in reality something rather special.

Some of the most remarkable elements were however indeed through the choice of NI Opera to stage the production of Tosca not in the usual expected venue. Even leaving Belfast aside, the newly built Millennium Forum would have seemed to be the venue of choice for the production’s Derry opening, but instead the company chose to stage each of the three acts of Tosca in three different locations in the city – all within short walking distance of each other, each of them approximating the Rome locations specified in the libretto. The choice of locations proved to be inspired – St Columb’s Cathedral standing in for Act 1’s Sant’ Andrea della Valle church, the fine surroundings of the City Hall The Guildhall turned into the Farnese Palace for Act 2, with the slightly more conventional theatre choice of St Columb’s Hall used for Act 3’s Castel Sant’ Angelo nonetheless having an appropriate position perched on the ancient walls of the city, where the audience were led between acts, following the orchestra carrying their instruments, for the opera’s dramatic finale.

In the event, for the matinee performance on the Friday 1st April 2011, it turned out that Act 1 had to be hastily moved from the Cathedral to the Guildhall due to a security alert that saw the bomb squad arrive with sirens blaring through the narrow streets leading up to the Diamond to deal with a suspect device left in the area of St Columb’s.  The improvised rearrangement of one of the chambers of the Guildhall to represent a church in the first Act was however effectively achieved, and even if they had to make do with a plastic bucket for a font, the natural light through the beautiful stained-glass windows helped create the right kind of environment for the unfolding of Act 1’s religious and political themes. It didn’t need an unexpected bomb alert elsewhere in the city either for the audience to connect with the relevance of the themes in Tosca to the population of Derry-stroke-Londonderry (the hyphenated split in the City’s commonly referred to designation reflecting the strong nationalist/unionist divide in the region). Apart from some non-specific modern dress elements and the visceral blood-stained white tiles of an all too familiar-looking clinical police interrogation room in Act 3, the opera wasn’t updated to make a specific link to the political and religious troubles in Northern Ireland. It would have been contentious - not to say a problematic distortion of reality - to draw a direct parallel between a rebel prisoner on the run being hunted down by brutal security forces under the control of a religious bigot and make it work, but the character types, the attitudes and the actions expressed were still those that a local audience of all ages could certainly have identified with, even if those elements were only able to be hinted at, and even if the connection wasn’t consciously made in the minds of the audience.

This then was the strength of NI Opera’s Tosca – and I’m sure that the relevance of the content of the opera didn’t go unnoticed when it and the location were chosen by the company – but it’s a characteristic of Puccini’s opera and a quality of opera in general that if its themes and their treatment have an authentic ring of truth then an audience cannot help but strongly identify with them. And it’s not just the political and religious content of the storyline – which is somewhat heightened by the compressed structure of the opera – but more importantly the underlying human element of ordinary people trying to conduct ordinary lives while caught up in a political nightmare. I find it hard to relate the romanticism in Puccini’s work elsewhere to the versimo movement that he was nominally a part of, but Tosca is one opera at least that plays to the school of hard-knocks and brutal realism. That aspect was thoroughly and bloodily explored in the wonderful staging, judging by the reaction of the public to each of the acts, but in particular to the hugely dramatic conclusion where the audience were on their feet and roaring their approval even before the curtain fell and while Nicholas Chalmers was still wringing out the opera’s final powerful closing chords from the orchestra.

The Guildhall and St Columb’s Hall locations were certainly instrumental in achieving this effect, bringing the audience close to the performance and allowing them to relate to it in a way one could never get from any opera house in the world – making the richness of the orchestration and the singing even more apparent. We were fortunate in this respect to have Lee Bisset (for the Friday matinee performance only – I didn’t get the chance to hear the main Tosca Giselle Allen who sang the two evening performances) as leading soprano for the occasion, delivering a commanding and sometimes dramatically strident Tosca when viewed close-up like this, but whose powerful voice nonetheless carried all the emotional cry-to-whisper dynamic of a character whose range encompasses lightning switches between jealousy over the model for Cavaradossi’s painting, to love and compassion for the torture he endures while incarcerated, right through to murderous vengeance on the man who would abuse her. Bisset not only made the full force of those verismo emotions felt, she made them credible.

Any attempt to give subtlety or complexity to the character of Baron Scarpia as Chief of Police would have been out of place here, and Paul Carey Jones accordingly played him as a villain through and through, at the same time relating the singing fully to the tone of his character as it is outlined in Puccini’s brooding and evocative score, most evident in the self-important arrogance of political power conflated with religious authority conveyed in the Te Deum. In the location of the Derry/Londonderry Guildhall (standing in for the closed-off Cathedral of course), this Act 1 conclusion needed no additional overemphasis. The only weak element of the singing I felt was Mexican tenor Jesús León as Cavaradossi, whose accented delivery was rather thin and unmusical, closer to speaking his role than singing it or fully feeling it – though I’m sure singing it in English didn’t help. Perhaps however the Guildhall surroundings and the comparatively more powerful singing of his fellow-cast members in the earlier Acts also rather overshadowed his voice (as does my memory of Plácido Domingo in the role). This would seem to be borne out by a much more convincing performance on an actual stage and with the acoustics of St Columb’s Hall behind him, since his E lucevan le stelle there was excellent at conveying the range of emotions his character is going through at such a pivotal moment in his life.

In the short period of their existence since their formation at the end of 2010, Northern Ireland Opera have nonetheless provided me personally with a number of unique opera experiences. Their chamber orchestra production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium at the Mill Theatre in Newtownabbey (another uncommon place for an opera production) introduced the province – or at least a small local audience – to an unfamiliar work from a modern composer in a wonderfully intimate environment. Tosca in Derry was even more ambitious in doing something different from the norm, clearly reaching out to bring opera into the provinces and expand the audience (with an affordable highest ticket price at only £15 – another welcome experience) through making the staging a unique and special event that cannot be replicated anywhere else. (Tosca has of course been staged for film and television in its original Rome locations, but it takes on another dimension when performed this way in Northern Ireland). It was a pity that the very location should prove problematic on this one occasion, and I regret not having the opportunity of seeing Act 1 of Tosca in St Columb’s Cathedral, but while NI Opera clearly have great ambitions for what opera can bring to the people of the province, there are clearly some objectives that just may be a little bit beyond their range of influence.

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.