Opera: Anna Nicole

Model of how to make an opera without any merit



Royal Opera House

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole

It's a strange experience being in a minority of one. Seeing the standing ovation, hearing the thunderous applause, and then reading the reactions of my fellow critics, I wonder how people can have such a bizarrely positive reaction to so wretched a piece of rubbish.

I have rarely encountered such a tawdry, smug, cheap, vacuous, pointless, trite, dull, unfunny, juvenile waste of time as Mark-Anthony Turnage's much-hyped, much-lauded and much-overrated Anna Nicole.

It is beyond my comprehension how anyone with a modicum of intelligence can regard the decision of the Royal Opera to go ahead with the premiere as anything other than a stain on an otherwise sure-footed organisation's reputation. Because the opera is, over my more than three decades of regular opera going, unique in being entirely without merit, with no conceivable case for its staging by a subsidised company.

Should you have missed the wall-to-wall coverage in print, on radio and TV and across social media, let me recap. Anna Nicole is the story, based on true events, of Anna Nicole Smith, an American - for want of a better word - model, who married an octogenarian multi-millionaire and died of an overdose in 2007.

The commission, when it was announced, was rather exciting. Turnage has written two previous operas, Greek and The Silver Tassie. Both were well worth seeing. Greek, especially, merits a revival. And the OTT story of Anna Nicole Smith is a fitting subject, operatic in its sweep.

The librettist, Richard Thomas, was behind Jerry Springer: the Opera, which was controversial but clever in its satire of American popular culture. So the omens were good.

Yet from the beginning it was clear where Anna Nicole was heading. As we see her for the first time, she tells the men on stage: "I want to blow you...[long pause] a kiss". Schoolboy humour is wittier than this, but that was about the best line of the night.

Far from satirising a culture in which Anna Nicole could become an icon well known enough to be identified by her first name, Turnage and Thomas are just sneering. The evening is two-and-a-half hours of familiar British artistic smugness. You know the routine: Americans are thick, their public life is tacky, etc. You would think they'd never heard of Jade or Jordan.

But what really grates about Anna Nicole is that it is a work which should stand or fall in the very market of popular culture about which it is so dismissive. Yet every man, woman and child in the country has been forced to support its performance, through subsidy. Truly an evening of artistic shame.

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    Last updated: 9:46am, February 25 2011