The Brooklyn Academy of Music last week hosted the U.S. premiere of “Anna Nicole,” a co-production with the endangered New York City Opera about the colorful life and untimely death of bosomy tabloid queen Anna Nicole Smith. The opening night crowd included Patrick Stewart, Julie Taymor and Rufus Wainwright.
Some 59 members of the city opera company are featured in the piece, which, like the heroine’s life, combines elements of comedy and tragedy. The opera was commissioned by London’s Royal Opera House and written by composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas (“Jerry Springer: The Opera”).
Here, Sarah Joy Miller is the heroine, who died in 2007, under the direction of Richard Jones. BAM’s rousing promotional video at the end of this post will give you a taste of their tone. Critical opinion of the opera (continuing through Saturday) was wildly divergent.
Here’s a look at what some top reviewers had to say.
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times: “The three creators, all British, certainly had fun depicting Smith’s tawdry American life and skewering reality television. But their Anna emerged as an improbable operatic heroine; a restless woman yearning to escape her backwater birthplace. ...'Anna Nicole' has prompted much talk in the opera world for the raunchiness of its libretto and the scenes of sex and drugs. Yet every time the piece threatens to slip into smutty humor, the creators, especially Mr. Turnage, tap the depth and sadness of Anna’s story.”
Kyle Anderson, Entertainment Weekly: “'Anna Nicole' is held aloft by Sarah Joy Miller's performance in the title role. Hers is no easy task, as the part itself forces Miller not only to sing in a twangy Texas accent but also to wear a pair of ludicrously large prosthetic breasts. Through it all, Miller's lovely soprano never wavers, and she imbues Smith with a tactile sense of pathos while still driving home the fact that she was a dangerous combination of limited means and uncapped ambition."
Justin Davidson, New York magazine: “There was something deeply distasteful on opening night about a gala audience in Brooklyn chortling at the primitiveness of Texas rustics and their comical drawl. ... The opera paints over its fundamental misogyny by spraying the entire cast with scorn. There’s not a smidgen of tenderness or sympathy for anyone here .... (Jones’) show is a hectic and slyly garish concoction of glitter and fat suits, room-size mattresses and preposterous lingerie.”
Martin Bernheimer, Financial Times: “A fatal femme with irrepressibly sultry inclinations, (Anna Nicole Smith) was famous for being infamous. Her banal rise and maudlin fall might be worthy of some sort of psycho-musico-dramatic documentation. Unfortunately, this is not it. ... The English text dabbles in profanity that neither shocks nor amuses after 10 minutes. ... Sarah Joy Miller, pert rather than innately alluring as Anna Nicole, sustains a semblance of sympathy in this long, thankless challenge.”
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: “Composer Turnage’s music is rich and lovely. Swirling strings recall old Hollywood films. Vibrant choruses toll with a touch of Broadway and Stephen Sondheim. ... Fittingly, Smith’s venomous mother, Virgie (a terrific Susan Bickley, who reprises her role from the London run), almost gets the final say. Her late aria turns her daughter’s story into a cautionary tale. ... But fortunately, the creators do Smith right.”
“Anna Nicole,” at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave., with performances remaining at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 24, 25, 27 and 28. Tickets: $25-$175. See nycopera.com, BAM.org, or call BAM Ticket Services at 718-636-4100.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn