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Turnage: Anna Nicole [Blu-ray]   [Region Free]
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In a tragic-comic take on the extremes of celebrity culture, composer Mark Anthony Turnage, librettist Richard Thomas and director Richard Jones add Anna Nicole Smith to opera's gallery of bad, sad girls. A pneumatic Playboy model who married an octogenarian billionaire, she achieved grotesque fame before her destitute, drugriddled death. With its jazz-coloured score and Eva-Maria Westbroek's starry performance, this is, as the New York Times said: “an engrossing outrageous, entertaining and, ultimately deeply moving opera”.
"It's a tremendous show...shocking it isn't; stunning it is!" (The Independent)
"The more Turnage and his librettist, Richard Thomas, pile one cringe-making scene upon another, the harder it is to look away...the whole cast is excellent..." (Gramophone)
"such pulsing energy and raucous humour in a brassy, vivid score that is perfectly matched to its trailer-trash subject...Nobody...could fail to admire Richard Jones's flamboyantly inventive staging or Eva-Maria Westbroek's brave and sassy performance in the title role of the rags-to-riches girl who married a billionaire and met a tragic end.
" (The Daily Telegraph)
CastEva-Maria Westbroek (Anna Nicole)Gerald Finley (The Lawyer Stern)Alan Oke (Old Man Marshall)Susan Bickley (Virgie)
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Antonio PappanoStage Director: Richard Jones
Catalogue Number: OABD7088DDate of Performance: 2011Running Time: 120 minutesSound: 2.0LPCM + 5.1(5.0) DTSAspect Ratio: 1080i High Definition / 16:9Subtitles: EN, FR, DE, ESLabel: Opus Arte
...It's a tremendous show...shocking it isn't; stunning it is! --The Independent
Eva-Maria Westbroek is the game soprano who takes on the title- role,singing in excellent English and making the journey from glamour babe to fat-and-frumpy loser with admirable panache.Bit then the whole cast is excellent,from Gerald Finley's lawyer Stern and Susan Bickley's feisty Mother to Alan Oke as the 89-year-old second husband,all bolstered by a vivid musical performance under Pappano. --Gramophone,Nov'11
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Just one star withheld because of the puke references, but otherwise, top class entertainment.
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, 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 a Wagnerian soprano, Westbroek is however 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.
The work can most succinctly be described as a black farce. Yet farce though it may be, don't imagine for one moment that it doesn't take itself seriously. Far from it. Its makers clearly regard the detritus floating down our cultural sewers as an entirely fitting subject for serious scrutiny. They also do not allow us to forget that as appalling as so much about Anna Nicole undoubtedly was, she was still a human being, and a strangely sympathetic, even likeable one at that. And this opera does not go light on the horror of her final days. Thus, as the work seethes and surges towards its inevitable conclusion, we too find ourselves sucked down in this tragicomic descent into Hell - heavy on the tragedy.
It also needs to be said that this is an opera concerned with more than just the tragedies of a single human life. It would, I think, be doing the work an injustice to try to assign it a simple message in the same way that we might to an after school special. At the same time, it would also be safe to say that the Anna Nicole we find in this opera is more than just a crass fool who made bad choices. She is very much the victim of a particular kind of vision of the "American Dream". I certainly don't want to suggest that she is relieved of all personal responsibility. There are layers here. We could just as easily view this work as an almost literally Shakespearian tragedy, for it is very much the tale of a character destroyed by her own flaws.
Musically, it is at once apparent that there are a range of 20th century influences. As the title I gave my review suggests, there are passages that are deeply minimalist, and which seem to me to be more specifically influenced by the music of Phillip Glass. I'm thinking here particularly of the fusion of jazz and "contemporary classical" minimalist elements. However, there are other times where the influences are more primal and less structured; or at least, less overtly so. In many of the opera's blackest moments we descend much further back into the preceding century. What we find in such passages is far more Stravinsky than Glass. On the jazz side, I have also heard it claimed that Turnage has been heavily influenced by the music of Miles Davis. I confess that this was not at once aparent to me on my own, but now, having had the dots connected for me, in retrospect I would have to admit that it does make perfect sense.
I don't mean to suggest, however, that Turnage is merely aping or quoting these other composers. Rather, it is his ability to at least semi-digest this complex cultural brew before regurgitating it to us that gives this work its curious power. The blend is certainly not seamless. Nor, I think, does it try to be. Turnage is more like a DJ at the turntables of a nightclub, sampling the tropes of the preceding century to create a dub uniquely his own.
Others more knowledgeable than I have written extensively on the merits of the various performances, so I shall not attempt to say much here. I will say Eva-Maria Westbroek, who performs in the title role, has a great deal resting on her shoulders. It would be wrong to depict this opera as a one-woman show - it isn't - but it is a good deal closer to it than any other opera I have seen. Eva-Maria, as both an actor and a singer, carries this burden lightly, and delivers a performance that is by turns grotesque, hilarious, and deeply moving. Even, at times, all three at once.
Much like the life of Anna Nicole herself.
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The music is brash, big bandish, and that in itself is not a problem.Read more
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