Anna Nicole – the reviews

Updated 12:55 to add Jessica Duchen’s blog.

Updated 15:30 with many more reviews. Other updates may follow, they may not all get noted up here.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s long-trailed opera on the life of Anna Nicole Smith opened at Covent Garden last night, and the reviews are coming thick and fast. Emerging themes include the successful (or otherwise) marriage of libretto and music, and questions of the opera’s depth of portrayal – is it even opera – as well as a surprising impression of Britishness and/or anti-Americanism.

As the day has gone on, I have to say that the reviews seem to have got worse. A factor of time (deadline-pressed papers came first, bloggers later) or critical demographic (institutional print versus free online)? Who knows.

Incidentally, I should add that I haven’t seen the opera, so none of the quotes pulled below reflect my own response to the piece – I’m simply gathering together some of what I think is the best writing that the opera has inspired.

Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph (five stars) and Andrew Clements in the Guardian (two stars) present the most opposing viewpoints. First Christiansen:

It’s often very funny, but it’s not just a crude farce with a downbeat ending: I think it is underpinned by genuine compassion for Anna Nicole and genuine scorn for the forces that mould, and then destroy her.

What makes this opera so exciting, however, is that Turnage seems to have found precisely the right musical idiom for such a drama – an Americana, brashly orchestrated and violently propulsive which embraces jazz, blues, musical comedy, and lounge smooch so ingeniously and responsively as to transcend mere pastiche.

(The Telegraph also has some video clips.)

And then Clements:

Perhaps the hype was all about the ROH convincing itself that the opera which Turnage had delivered was really what they expected when the first cheques were signed five years ago, and what the composer himself had promised in interviews before the first night — a comedy that morphs gradually into tragedy as it unfolds Anna’s tawdry life. The ending is undeniably tragic, but perversely unmoving, since most of the music Turnage provides for her never suggests or seems to look for sympathy.

In fact, far too much of his score seems in thrall to the libretto, the work of Richard Thomas, half of the partnership that came up with Jerry Springer: The Opera. That was no opera at all, while at least some of Anna Nicole has the dramatic trappings of opera, but not many. There are very few moments when the drama is driven by the music, when the cartoon-like scenes, with cliche texts and schoolboy humour, are given shape and purpose by Turnage’s contribution.

Alexandra Coghlan in the New Statesman:

Judging by the teeny-bopper rapture of last night’s audience, its success is certain; new audiences have already been seduced through the forbidding portals of the opera house and have liked what they have found within. There’s just one problem – I’m not sure that Anna Nicole really is an opera.With the likes of Sondheim, Weill (and even Bernstein, whose melodic fingerprints were all over Turnage’s score) stretching the musical vocabulary of Broadway past all expectations, there’s little in Turnage’s decidedly conservative score to set it apart. Brash, blowsy and bluesy, Anna Nicole is all shimmying trumpets and thumping bass-line. Voices are amplified to cope with the volume coming from the pit, losing that naked voice intimacy that only opera can offer. Yes it’s through-composed, but so is Evita. Trying to convert people into opera by showing them Anna Nicole is like trying to get children to like fruit by giving them Starburst.

Andrew Clark in the Financial Times:

It’s not immorality that kills “Anna Nicole”; it’s the absence of characterisation and dramatisation in a scenario that, if you read Nicole Smith’s biography, has “opera” written all over it.As it stands, the piece belongs in the same genre as “Jerry Springer”, strung along a clothesline of lewd ditties and frothy choruses. This is slick satire masquerading as art, something Kurt Weill and George Gershwin did far better in the 1930s. When Turnage does free himself from Thomas’s lurid doggerel (“thong/wrong”, “God bless/No IRS”), he demonstrates what a serious composer he is, a creator of smoochy atmosphere and theatrical pathos, all very much in tune with the popular American ethos of the story.

David Gillard in the Daily Mail liked it:

But this is not just a clever send-up of superficial values. It’s a glittering modern morality tale that condemns a soulless society that worships at the shrine of silicone implants and Jimmy Choo shoes. … Turnage’s eclectic jazz-tinged score – pungently played under conductor Antonio Pappano – splendidly captures the mood of this rasping, grasping American nightmare.

As did Jessica Duchen in the Independent (she gives the opera three stars, although reading the review I’m not sure why it drops two) (five stars – internet gremlins were responsible for awarding it just three):

Richard Thomas’s libretto would carry the day even if the score weren’t as terrific as it is: varied, acidic, lyrical and occasionally heartbreaking. The death of Anna’s son, Daniel (Dominic Rowntree), who sings only to utter the names of all the drugs he’s been stuffed with, is suitably devastating; Anna’s lament harkens more than a little to Purcell’s Dido.

With Tony Pappano in the driving seat, the orchestra and jazz band together pack a punch in Turnage’s rhythmic score, punching out the jazz and blues enhancing the edgy but somehow edible atonality that is so characteristic of him.

Duchen has also posted some extended ‘morning after’ thoughts on her blog, which offer a more complex set of responses than a short newspaper review can possible carry. Worth reading.

Predictably, the internet reviewers are able to post deeper explorations of what does and doesn’t work in Anna Nicole. Igor Toronyi-Lalic on The Arts Desk disagrees strongly with Duchen and others about Thomas’s libretto:

Many of Thomas’s try-hard attempts to get down with the kids and be funny (and he’s failed at this before) were nauseating. As was the over-enthusiastic laughter from the audience at every “fuck you”. They obviously thought that Thomas was delivering some sort of daringly radical assault on the propriety of the world of opera, when in truth there’s probably more bare tits and dirty chat in any given season at Covent Garden and the ENO than on many porn channels. Having said that, every now and again Thomas does strike gold. Lines like, “We are the restless, breastless masses”, sung by a quartet of girls readying themselves for plastic surgery, and Anna Nicole’s Imelda Marcos moment (my favourite song of the evening): “That’s the sound of Jimmy Choo, ooo-ooo-ooo,” are unforgettably good.

… Interest nosedived in the second half as we processed to Anna Nicole’s grave. Thomas’s libretto buckled under the pressure to be soulful and give wider meaning to the plethora of tragic events to befall Anna Nicole and her family that we rattle through soap-style. A designated conscience of the opera, Anna Nicole’s mother, Virgie (strongly sung by Susan Bickley), offers up insights like “shit happens, then you die”. The increasing poverty of the libretto was doubly embarrassing as the second half was where Mark-Anthony Turnage’s music began to achieve some genuine emotional power.

And Stephen Graham on wonders whether this isn’t a new type of opera:

Smith’s status as a villainous and gold-digging Cinderella whose short, media-fuelled life ended in the bleakest of tragedies with the death of first her son and then herself from a cocktail of prescription drugs makes her an ideal candidate for opera. Put her alongside Lucrezia, Poppea, Semele, and Medea in the gallery of operatic femme fatales. The contemporary nature of her life – almost every one of Smith’s adult experiences, including the birth of her second child and the protracted saga of the court case in which she contested her dead second husband’s fortune with his blood family, was and is inseparable from its mediatisation – makes this opera a new proposition entirely, however, one that must invoke celebrity culture, postmodern aesthetics, capitalism, feminism, and Situationist spectacle (America, in other words) if it is to do anything like justice to its subject.

Librettist and composer are well-matched to such a task here, past experience placing them in a strong position to deal with the subject’s many complex requirements. Turnage’s piecemeal style, for one, has always sat better for me in dramatic as opposed to concert works. On the stage, Turnage’s characteristically postmodern stylistic mosaic, where jazz and blues but also rock and pop and other vernacular modes of expression inform and even form the material, provides a flowing bed in which the drama can bloom.

It wasn’t just the UK press who attended. Here are Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times:

Ideally, opera is supposed to be the ultimate collaborative art form, and “Anna Nicole” met that ideal. At 50, Mr. Turnage, whose modernist music is brashly accessible and run-through with jazz, has written a pulsing, wild and, when called for, yearning score. Mr. Thomas, a musical theater lyricist and composer, is best known for “Jerry Springer: The Opera” . His clever, literate and perceptive libretto for “Anna Nicole” bops along mostly in rhymed couplets, thick with alliterative, everyday profanities. He and Mr. Turnage sensitively navigate the terrain of Anna Nicole’s chaotic and sadly pathetic life, which ended in 2007, the result of a fatal mixture of drugs. They lend Smith vulnerability without covering over her crassness.

And Anne Midgette in the Washington Post:

The hope for “Anna Nicole” was that the creators – Mark-Anthony Turnage, a major compositional voice in classical music today with a bad-boy streak, and Richard Thomas, whose last pop-culture venture was “Jerry Springer: The Opera” – would transform their subject into effective theater. Instead, the material ended up mastering them. They documented Anna Nicole’s life with dogged persistence, but they neglected to provide one piece of information: why anybody should care.

… Turnage, too, seemed hampered by his librettist. He’s an eminently dramatic composer, and his music was full of touches evoking other great dramatic composers (Britten and Bernstein, to name two), as well as different musical styles: a honky-tonk love duet for Anna Nicole and her first husband; a sinuously seductive waltzlike paean to food sung by Anna Nicole in her later, more zaftig years; and all kinds of jazz-inspired lines snaking around the score.
But both he and Thomas shied away from what should have been the opera’s main tasks: characterizing Anna Nicole, and her relationship with Stern, in music. They kept taking refuge in dramatic distractions (an aria by Anna Nicole’s mother, Virgie, sung by Susan Bickley, about how much she hates men) but hardly ever hauled off and let Anna Nicole have a real aria or explained her relationship with Stern.

And still more reviews coming in:

Norman Lebrecht, Slipped Disc.

Turnage, the most gifted British composer of his generation, does not have much to do in the first act except maintain a pounding rhythm. In the second, he writes some marvellous elegiac stretches for the orchestra, summoning our sympathy for the heroine’s decline, but character is drawn so thin and irony laid on so thick that good music goes to waste. I did not see a wet eye in the house.

… Anna Nicole the opera makes a mockery of all it touches and takes nothing seriously, except one persistent theme. The opera is relentlessly, mindlessly anti-American, spouting all the common Euro cliches about the vapidity of American life. It may pretend to be anti-ugly American, but the prejudice runs right through its arteries. ‘I’m going to rape that American dream,’ is one of its slogans. ‘America, you dirty whore/I gave you everything, you wanted more,’ is the heroine’s swansong.

So that’s all right, then. It enables us Brits to leave the opera house feeling that tiny bit superior to what we had just seen. This will not play well in Poughkeepsie. I doubt it will reach New York. What begins as a romp turns into a rant. Like all rants, eventually it palls.

Keith McDonnell, What’s On Stage (three stars). ‘I don’t believe its operatic credentials are as strong as everyone was expecting.’

Jon Jacob, Thoroughly Good Blog. ‘Turnage’s score did what was demanded of the libretto. It didn’t dominate proceedings. That’s one in the eye for all those cynics who dismissed my trip this evening as a guaranteed bore, musically speaking. The composer turned in an accessible score. That isn’t a weakness. That shows sensitivity. Understanding. Team work.’

Stuart Wood, The Hospital Club. ‘Anna Nicole’s story was made for opera and this production is a beacon of proof that state funded arts, in the right hands, are essential for the cultural health of the nation. This was a night when I felt proud to be a Brit.’

Stephen Jay-Taylor, Opera Britannia. ‘I think the word I’m looking for to describe the opera is “unedifying”. I also think it crude, meretricious, oddly misogynistic and utterly without dramatic substance.’

Mark Berry, Boulezian:

I am suspicious of any work that seems designed to disallow almost any adverse criticism. Stravinsky accomplished that magnificently in The Rake’s Progress; yet, as so often, he seems to be a glorious exception. Anna Nicole is not, etc. If one complains about the ‘musical’ element, one will doubtless be assailed as ‘élitist’, as if somehow wishing for the best were something of which to be ashamed. Likewise all the popular culture elements. If one questions the banality of the libretto, not only ‘élitism’ but prudishness will also be alleged. Far from it, in my case: I find much of what is said straightforwardly puerile, and not in the slightest shocking, let alone hilarious. (An audience that laughs uproariously at crudely rhyming ‘profanities’ may need to get out a little more.) Puerility will then doubtless be part of ‘the point’, but one can say that about anything. This seems merely trashy rather than ‘about trashiness’. Question the musical language, insofar as it may exist, and one will be accused of ideological ‘élitism’: the horror – the ghost of Darmstadt!


What is Anna Nicole for? It’s no bad thing for the Royal Opera to put on such a modern, iconoclastic show. It’s certainly a more constructive version of the intermittent galas that such institutions have, replacing a dusty pat on its collective back with a cheeky public flash on Bow Street. I don’t think it’s satire either. No-one gets demonised during the piece (with the possible exception of the oleaginous plastic surgeon) although there’s a lot of mocking. I suspect that this is because no character can be said to have done anything wrong. Pity on its own isn’t what substantive art is about though. There’s no transaction. I don’t feel responsible or galvanised watching Anna Nicole. However I do feel rather embarrassed, especially for American culture without which the fun of this piece and production wouldn’t exist. Americana gets it in the neck without trial.

And, finally, one late one from John Allison in the Sunday Telegraph (0 stars):

In another of its doomed attempts at getting in a new audience – in this case, mostly C‑list “celebrities” – Covent Garden turns itself into a theme park. Images of the, er, tit-ular character festoon the theatre, which is also newly equipped with a monogrammed “AN” pink curtain.

Can we expect the next Carmen to come complete with bullring bunting, or is it just the new work that is not being taken seriously? Either way, Anna Nicole Smith has been screwed over yet again.



A Prom date with Beyoncé

I’ve posted a short write-up of the Turnage/Beyoncé story to the Guardian’s Music Blog:

It began with a bang: skirling woodwind and dissonant brass fury. Nothing that unusual for a BBC Proms world premiere. But then audience members at the Royal Albert Hall last Thursday suddenly sat up. Some rooted through their programmes, looking vainly for confirmation; others glanced around in disbelief. Were they hearing this right? Was the esteemed BBC Symphony Orchestra really playing Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)?

Continue reading here.

Turnage / Beyoncé – the latest

The more I look into this Turnage / Beyoncé story, the more the background intrigues me. There’s something going on that’s still not clear – I’m especially intrigued by the different levels of ‘knowledge’ Turnage has been publicly willing to supply with regard to this piece (open about some things, reserved about others) – but I’ve not yet been able to elicit much firm comment from any of the parties involved.

However, the search continues: watch this space.

Mark-Anthony Turnage and the Beyoncé mystery


Credit for this spot goes entirely to Andy Hamilton, but what do you think? Was Mark-Anthony Turnage quoting Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’ in his Proms commission, Hammered Out, given its premiere last night?

Turnage himself, in a brief interview before the Proms broadcast, references  funk, especially Tower of Power, and r’n’b of the James Brown vintage. But intriguingly he also says

there are a couple of hidden things, but I’d quite like other people to find them out rather than me saying them.

Even more intriguingly, Anthony Burton’s programme note (which doesn’t mention Beyoncé) tells us that this passage is related to a climactic passage in Turnage’s forthcoming opera Anna Nicole (based on the life and death of Anna Nicole Smith).

So what do you reckon? Here’s Hammered Out on BBC’s iPlayer stream; the Turnage starts at 3:24.

And here’s Beyoncé:

What’s more – are there more references to be found? The Stravinsky-ish bit at 5:53 sounds like it might be something else, for example …

Update: 27 Aug, afternoon: Well, it seems that everyone agrees that the reference isn’t hidden at all, and I’m pretty convinced now that it’s a deliberate quote. But not one of the five major reviews so far published (Geoffrey Norris, Telegraph; Guy Dammann, Guardian; Michael Church, Independent; Barry Millington, Evening Standard or Edward Seckerson, The Arts Desk) spotted it. An unusual example of a new music audience ‘getting’ a new work much better than any of the critics?

Update 2: 31 Aug: The iPlayer and programme links will go offline soon (the BBC only posts them for a week after broadcast). But for downloads of both, and an extended review of the piece, please see 5 against 4. See also these two videos for a flavour of the work.

Update 3: I’ve written some of this story up for the Guardian’s Music Blog.