Friday, February 18, 2011

Turnage, Thomas and a tale for our times

Here's my write-up of ANNA NICOLE from today's Independent.

I want to see it again - and will do in a couple of weeks. It really is a brilliant show, and when you start trying to decide whether that is chiefly thanks to Mark Anthony Turnage's music, Richard Thomas's words, the roller-coaster staging by Richard Jones, the relishful performances from every singer or the verve of Tony Pappano and the orchestra and band, you realise that it's the whole load of them together, forming the perfect team. I'd like to know, though, if Richard Jones has a thing about smiley faces. Smileys grace the back of the drained, "low wages" blues-number WalMart employees; Smileys too, incongruous likewise, back in his Macbeth at Glyndebourne. Signature image?

A few issues to explore at slightly greater length here. The opera moves from life to death in the most visceral way: the first half is all brilliance, colour, images of fairy-tale scale - Anna's big plastic-golden throne from which she narrates the first part of her tale into the willing microphones, and the pole dancers gleam like Rhinemaidens out of a bronzy, hazy tank. The libretto bounces and twirls, not taking itself too seriously, super-ironic and often very funny. Stern the Lawyer - Gerald Finlay in max-evil mode - puts in an appearance in Act 1 and the chorus flings insults at him. Beelzebub! Shiva the Destroyer of Worlds! Worst of all: Not Cool! Then he comes back and they do more of it. He rounds on them: "Anything else?" "Yoko Ono!" they cry. And Anna reminds him: "Honey, you're not in the story yet!"

By the interval I thought I'd got it: hooray! It would have been so easy for this opera to turn out judgmental and salacious; instead it's a celebration of life. They're not saying "she sold her soul for a boob job and then look what happened to her, yah boo sucks", they're saying: "milk life for its joys, because they're gone too fast - be extreme and love it because tomorrow we..."

Oh, but hang on - they aren't. The second half grows increasingly chilly: the thronging, noisy, bright-suited chorus is slowly replaced by black-clad silent dancers with film cameras for heads, slinking around like Harry Potter dementors that suck away the will to live. The fairy-tale lighting becomes bleaker and starker. Anna's beloved son sings only after he's dead. Anna's mother, who is moral but extremely judgmental, has more and more to do. The chorus melts away. All that's left are those camera-dementors and some pretty harsh judgments. "Oh America, you dirty whore, I gave you everything and you wanted more," Anna sings, about to die. Yes, Anna Nicole is a brilliant metaphor for the decline and fall of western excess, maybe capitalism itself. But we can see that. Would it have been better not to bash us over the head with it? I hoped the story would speak, and sing, for itself and allow us to draw our own conclusions.

Thumping blame onto America in an opera for Covent Garden is just...too easy. Yes, Anna Nicole was American, but western culture as a whole has willingly lapped up the world that destroyed her. A theme that sounds derived from Fanfare for the Common Man runs through the score; the curtain that covers the passage of ten years is laden with images of hamburgers. "Supersize me!" the initially reluctant Anna says to the plastic surgeon who's about to give her back pain for life. Come on, we all bought into this. We can't just shift the blame.

I also wonder slightly about the reportage style of the storytelling. This is an opera about the culture of living under constant observation and it is not least the media intrusion, milked so horribly, that helps to destroy Anna. So in that sense, the slant is in keeping with the thrust, so to speak. But if you are telling rather than inhabiting a story, the emotion tends to stay at one remove. The music itself is good enough to induce a lump in the throat when Daniel utters his requiem of drugs and when Anna, taking a few leaves out of Dido and Aeneas's book, mourns him. It certainly doesn't leave you cold. Still, I wanted more set-up to the tragedy - more of the closeness of Anna and her son and why he took to drugs, for instance; some of the second act's drama is a little sketchy, given the horrors it portrays (Anna giving birth on pay-per-view is another step on the downward plunge). And I wanted to reach the very heart of the humanity, to get inside the characters' heads and live the tragedy with them as Verdi, for instance, would have; but this very post-modern take ultimately doesn't permit the identification that would make it possible.

As for Turnage, though - I think this may be the opera he was born to write. His style really crystallises in it: the basis is atonal and full of rough-edged textures and crunchy harmonies that you can really get your teeth into, yet it's also melodic and shot through with jazz, blues and a bit of rock 'n' roll in the party scene (hints here of his alleged flirtation with Beyonce and 'Single Ladies' at last year's Proms). It's a personal voice and a very contemporary one, but it's always listenable, memorable, focused. He's always had a good instinct for zeitgeist-trapping - remember Greek in the 1980s? - and here that instinct comes of age.

It's a tale for our times -- and only future experiences will tell whether it'll become a classic, revivable in ten, 20 or 50 years with more rewards to be gleaned on every hearing. Yesterday was its world premiere, remember. Oh, and yes, it was attended by a lot of so-called celebs -- the place was brimming with people I thought I recognised only wasn't sure whether or not I did. Seems that Boy George was there, and Norman Lamont - and just about every critic on earth.

One last observation. Two major premieres are happening this nearly-spring. The Royal Opera gets Anna Nicole. The Royal Ballet gets... Alice in Wonderland. Same planet, same theatre, different worlds...