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Turnage: Anna Nicole / Pappano, Westbroek, Bickley, White [DVD]

Album Summary

>Turnage, Mark-Anthony : Anna Nicole
Performers Conductor Ensembles Composer

Notes & Reviews:

A young Playboy model, an octogenarian billionaire husband, intrusive media fascination and a tragically early death. This is a roller-coaster of a real contemporary life for a blockbuster of a contemporary opera by the acclaimed opera composer Mark-Anthony Turnage (Greek and The Silver Tassie) and librettist Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer: the Opera). The story of Anna Nicole Smith is under the brilliant and idiosyncratic direction of Richard Jones and the baton of Antonio Pappano, Music Director of The Royal Opera, to make this a major event of the Royal Opera Season.

Sex, extreme language and drug abuse are part of the opera - after all, they were ingredients in a life that went from the dubious glamour of the sex symbol, through long and vicious legal struggles to a fatal overdose. How Anna Nicole was treated and how she was viewed is as much a reflection of the society that hounded her as of her own feelings and ambitions - Eva-Maria Westbroek creates what is a challenging and complex central role. This new opera is provocative in its themes, exciting in its bravura style and thrilling with its sheer contemporary nerve. Anna Nicole Smith's life made the news - you can bet this world premiere will too.

"... this is a musically rich, audacious and inexplicably poignant work." - New York Times

The Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek studied at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. Ever since her breathtaking interpretation of Lady Macbeth von Mzensk in Amsterdam, she has been celebrated as a star in the Netherlands. Her debut at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London was also with Lady Macbeth of Mzensk. It followed Sieglinde in Die Walküre under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle at the Festival in Aix-en-Provence and at the Easter-Festival in Salzburg. With two roles she was heard at the Bastille-Oper: with Elisabeth in Tannhäuser and with Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Furthermore she gave her debut as Leonora in La forza del destino in Brussels. Upon her overwhelming success by singing Lady Macbeth of Mzensk in Paris she was honoured by the renowned Antonio Livio Award 2008, issued by La Presse Musicale Internationale situated in Paris. She performed Sieglinde at the Palau in Valencia and in Bayreuth in summer 2009. Her interpretation of Minnie in La fanciulla del West in Amsterdam under the celebrated direction of Nikolaus Lehnhoff draws international praise. Westbroek made her Metropolitan Opera debut on April 22, 2011 singing the role of Sieglinde in the premiere of a new production of Wagner's "Die Walküre" directed by Robert Lapage.

Alan Oke studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama in Glasgow and with Hans Hotter in Munich. Following a successful career as a baritone he made his debut as a tenor in 1992 singing Brighella (Ariadne auf Naxos) for Garsington Opera. Since then he has sung a wide variety of roles including Rodolfo (La Boheme), Alfredo (La Traviata), Pinkerton (Madam Butterfly), Steva (Jenufa), Boris (Katya Kabanova), Boles (Peter Grimes), Rinuccio (Gianni Schicchi), Gonsalves (L'heure Espangnole), Armoured Man (Magic Flute), M.K. Gandhi (Satyagraha) and The Four Servants (Les Contes d'Hoffmann). Companies include Scottish Opera; Opera North; The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; English National Opera; Opera New Zealand; Opera Zuid; Boston Opera; Canadian Opera Company and The Metropolitan Opera as well as appearances at the Edinburgh, Aldeburgh, Bregenz and Ravenna Festivals.

The Canadian baritone Gerald Finley has become one of the leading singers and dramatic interpreters of his generation, with award-winning performances and recordings on CD and DVD and performing at the world's major opera and concert venues in a wide variety of repertoire. In opera, Mr Finley has sung all the major baritone roles of Mozart. His Don Giovanni has been seen in New York, London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Prague, Tel Aviv and Budapest, with further appearances to include Glyndebourne and Munich. In contemporary opera, Mr Finley has excelled in creating leading roles, most notably J. Robert Oppenheimer in John Adam's "Doctor Atomic" (New York Met, ENO London, San Francisco, Chicago and Amsterdam), as Harry Heegan in Mark Anthony Turnage's "The Silver Tassie" at ENO, and in 2001 he took the lead role of Jaufré Rudel in Kaija Saariaho's "L'amour de loin" for the much-acclaimed premieres in Santa Fe, Paris and Helsinki. In 2009-10, Mr Finley returns to the Metropolitan Opera as Marcello in "La Boheme" and as Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne. He also performs Iago with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony in concert.

"It proved a weirdly inspired work, an engrossing, outrageous, entertaining and, ultimately, deeply moving new opera. This was an improbable triumph for Covent Garden. 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... The conductor Antonio Pappano, the music director of Covent Garden, who shares a passion for jazz with Mr. Turnage, drew an electric, blazing yet wondrously subtle performance from the orchestra. And the director Richard Jones has devised a dazzling, humorous yet humane production, with sets by Miriam Buether that come alive with Day-Glo colors and neon lights, and playfully realistic costumes by Nicky Gillibrand... The London audience ate it up. But so did I, because in the end this is a musically rich, audacious and inexplicably poignant work. The ovations were tumultuous. Who says the Royal Opera takes itself too reverently?" -The New York Times

The Classical Review
the result was guaranteed to be coruscating and colorful in equal measure. Seldom have high art and low art collided so entertainingly.

This opera recreates the life of the tragic figure, skipping quickly over the many years when the estate was in the courts and ending with the death of Anna's son and her own drug-induced demise. Turnage's score is well-suited for the subject contrasting moments of hilarity with the pathos of Anna's life. Often there are traces of Kurt Weill, with jazzy and often very bawdily suggestive Broadway-style songs and choruses. It is unfortunate Richard Thomas has elected to overemphasize the campy elements of the story. Anna Nicole Smith fits in well with other doomed operatic divas, including Carmen, Violetta and Salome. The performance is superb. Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek is outstanding in the challenging title role, the reliable Gerald Finley is perfection as the slimy lawyer who coaxes her into degradation. Conductor Antonio Pappano again shows his expertise in the operatic world.

National Public Radio
you can't deny the strong performances, especially by Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role.

Daily Telegraph (UK)
I adored Turnage's Anna Nicole when I heard its finest performance earlier this year: such pulsing energy and raucous humour in a brassy, vivid score that is perfectly matched to its trailer-trash subject. But it "contains explicit language and scenes of a sexual nature", so Opus Arte's recording should be kept firmly away from those whose view of opera is entirely romantic and traditional. Nobody, however, 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.

Opera News
Composer Mark-Anthony Turnage ... and librettist Richard Thomas ... make a winning team, fashioning a compelling tragedy from this sordid story in the tradition of grand opera ... this operatic assessment of her life is both thorough and thought-provoking.

Mark-Anthony Turnage has turned out a wonderfully modern and poignant score to Richard Thomas's libretto and these roles are not for play! Finley as Stern is just as imperious and full of himself as Mozart's Count Almaviva and Susan Bickley gives you a knockout performance as Anna's mother forced to watch her daughter's poor life choices get the best of her. The role of Anna would certainly tempt any diva today including Renee Fleming, Anna Netrebko, or Deborah Voight as it sits right in the middle with a few excursions into the stratosphere. The curious and mercurial moods in the beginning and quick rise make for a sad, inevitable downfall of our heroine. All in all, this may be a one-hit wonder, but what a wonder it is.

Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek is marvelous in the title role of Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas' compelling and poignant opera about the life and death of American model Anna Nicole Smith. Richard Jones' grandiose, neon-colored production for the Royal Opera, with extraordinary costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, is nicely directed for the screen by Francesca Kempe, who captures the electricity of Westbroek's heartbreaking Anna Nicole, a woman seemingly destroyed by the prying media and her enabling lawyer.

the whole cast is excellent... the opera is a... compelling one nonetheless.

The WholeNote
Turnage's music, never very easy, gains on second hearing and is ably assisted by a rhythm section including John Paul Jones...

San Francisco Classical Voice
Act 1 of the opera presents one high-powered, four-letter explosion after another... Act 2 presents a far more musically nuanced portrayal of Smith in decline. Indeed, the second act is so sobering, tragic, and moving that it helps put the super-octane overdrive of the first act in perspective.

The Classical Review
Conductor Antonio Pappano and his fine orchestra and chorus throw themselves very capably into the flamboyant spirit of the proceedings. The audience appear to be enjoying themselves immensely. Picture and sound quality are excellent... snap it up while you can. The opera is a raunchy good romp.

The Art Desk
... fabulous dramatic soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek charms us from the start... and keeps us radiant-bemused company through the trajectory of Anna Nicole's life... the ensemble work and the look of Jones's note-perfect production, with the quick lighting changes of Mimi Jordan Sherin and DM Wood coming up exceptionally well on screen, that will keep it companionable on multiple viewings... .make no mistake: Anna Nicole the opera is here to stay.

Notes & Reviews:

Run Time: 120 min.
Region: All
Picture Format: NTSC, 16:9, Color
Sound Format(s): LPCM Stereo, DTS 5.0 Surround
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish


Anna Nicole/Mark-Anthony Turnage/Opus Arte DVD
Wow! This was a bit of a surprise, having read those cranky British reviewers about ‘Anna Nicole’, I had very low expectations. As with my previous rants about Opera, It’s about the music stupid, and this music does not disappoint. In fact there are parts that make it a shoe in for the best opera. This century. So far (that I’ve heard/seen anyway).

The composer Turnage is no hack and I find it so annoying that because he uses pop and jazz vernaculars he is somehow labeled a sell-out or incapable of doing anything with depth. The opposite is true. He clearly knows classical repertoire and his integration of commercial idioms is completely seamless and often contributes to the freshness of the composition (love the angular jazz ‘heads’ stylistically half way between Zappa and Torke). ‘Lulu’ constantly springs to mind, not stylistically, but the sophisticated level of integration of low and highbrow and the often-stunning musical results. One of his greatest gifts is his seamless transitions from one section to the next. He has set himself on a razor’s edge between ‘numbers’ opera and through-composed music and the psychology menace and vulnerability is clearly in the stuff in-between. Gradually transitioning colors from dark to light and back gives it a constant psychedelic glow with not a lot of gray orchestration or harmonic tiredness. The particularly strong music is in the stripper pole music and the ------- scene (I can’t believe I just wrote that). There is a level of eroticism that rivals Kundry’s scenes in the second act of Parsifal, Tristan and Isolde and again Lulu. It’s a great mystery how music has the capability to express the power of human sexuality—equally so, how easy music can make sex comic or banal. I wish there was the power of those two brief scenes throughout the opera but Turnage is not Wagner, so get over it. My biggest disappointment was the music after the curtain drops in the second act starting with Howard Stern’s Aria. It is like the air came out of the tires, musically and dramaturgically, (not to mention staging) that it felt literally like they ran out of time or money or both. Everything up to there is a delight—the entire first act having many, many good set pieces (loved the wedding scene and the quartet writing at the end of act 1). One criticism that I read in those cranky Brit reviews, and that I have to agree with, was Turnage was a little too locked into the libretto and didn’t let some sections breathe more. Once the composer stumbles onto some good music, he should give those sections space to expand and articulate a bigger contour (see stripper pole /-------- scenes). It was all a bit claustrophobic in the intensity of the pacing-- but that’s better than being too slow and dragging.

Speaking of the libretto, the librettist Thomas does a masterful job of balancing the profane and the profound though gratefully he doesn’t dwell on the latter. Besides being about Anna Nicole it is a Eurocentric view of America: the media, class-struggle, fame, sex, drugs, -even though that pretty much sums up her life. Much has been made about the profanity or rhyming couplet, potty jokes but none of it seemed forced or inappropriate-- to me, anyway, but maybe I’m tainted by watching too many episodes of the Kardashians. The gutterness is always mixed with reflectiveness to give it a context. As far as the libretto contributing to the collapse of the operas structure in the 2nd act, it’s difficult to know whether the contour is not there in the text or the wheels fell off the composer (to stretch an earlier metaphor about the air coming out of the tires). Only they probably really know.

One of the fantastic aspects of the DVD is the chorus singing. You’ll never find so many great singers in one room other than in London. Perfect articulations, rhythms, and pitch ---English opera companies are truly blessed by the heritage of a great choral tradition. Since the chorus seems on stage for 80% of the great parts, it is safe to say a lot of the great music is while they are singing. And it also seems Turnage has a soft spot for the English choral tradition, as it is his best music.

As for the characters: Eve-Marie Westrook stoled the show with her pouty vulnerability and brash sexiness. I was less enthralled with her singing as there is some mush in parts of her tessitura and her uber-heavy vibrato in some held notes (in parts of her tessitura). For me, too much heavy Italian opera and not enough light Kurt Weill. Inversely, for all the opposite reasons, I was totally won by 3 of the cast: Andrew Rees (doctor Yes), Alan Oke (Howard Marshall) and Susan Bickley (Anna’s mom and voice of moral authority).

The staging costume, and choreography was all suitably crass and over the top stunning, as well the DVD production (Opus Arte) was beautifully presented.

One final note is the opera hired 3 legendary, rock heavy-weights to be the power trio at the centre of the orchestration. Whether it was for street cred, or publicity, Peter Erskine, John Paul Jones and John Parricelli, dusted off their instruments, left their respective castles and massage therapists (all aging musicians have massage therapists) and did a really great job.

Highly, highly recommended.

Submitted on 10/26/11 by Mike Maguire 
Captivating in the shock value but the music is engaging as well
There are many reasons that one could cite for not taking the life of Anna Nicole Smith and turning it into opera but most of the reasons could also be - as Mark-Anthony Turnage would say - are all cause to do just that. The rags to riches to fast, tragic downfall story of the stripper turned Playboy centerfold turned model is in so many ways crude, tragic, sad and almost that of an "anti-heroine" Anna Nicole Smith as a tragic example of what could go wrong with "the American dream" is, indeed, operatic in its melodrama. Actually, the libretto by Richard Thomas goes almost to parody in its attempt to show what might be the seemingly flawed underside of American culture. There are few protected icons here. Thomas takes jabs at everything from Wal Mart to Larry King to plastic surgery to the poor white south. In fact, many of the characters are played as very "over the top" stereotypes for the intended effect, such as Anna's parents, her first husband, her self-serving lawyer and her leering billionaire husband, J. Howard Marshall. The first half of the opera does have a bit of a specious tone to it. The jibes and the occasional dark humor are quite obvious but by the time the second half comes in, Thomas and Turnage let us see Anna Nicole the under educated, silicone enhanced pawn of an industry that doesn't seem to really care about her as a person. So does it work and would the general public like this piece? The answers are both guardedly "yes' First, this is not really for the easily offended. The language is rough, including multiple uses of the big "F" word, some overt references to female breasts and their colloquial designation and some drug use. It is, first and foremost, a tragic story about some crude people. The music, like most of that of Mark-Anthony Turnage is strange, but very accessible; in this case, with a distinct jazz-pop feel. The staging is garish and bright but very effective and key vocal roles are really performed well, most notably Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna and Gerald Finley as her shark of a lawyer. Her only child, Danny, who is shown first as a young boy and later as a late teen who gets trapped in drug use and ends up dead is mostly a silent role, save for a short poignant set piece near the end, but is sad to watch. The whole story and the theater of the work itself is almost cringe inducing. We know this will all turn out very badly and Anna Nicole Smith is not sort of girl most folks would welcome as a next door neighbor but Turnage succeeds in bring the human tragedy to life. It is almost like reading a tabloid and then realizing - wait, this was a real person that this actually happened to. "Anna Nicole", which premiered at the Royal Opera, London just this past February, did shock the audience more than a bit but the presentation is good; the opera does not wear itself out at all either through duration, sensationalism and, certainly not, musically. There have been other contemporary works on the sad and shocking aspects of contemporary public figures such as "Jackie O" by Michael Daugherty or "Tania" by Anthony Davis but this work of Turnage has a tangible, confrontational pathos to it - right down to Anna's closing "I want to blow you all ... a kiss" - as she zips her own body bag that not all will like but I think is well worth looking at to see for yourself.
Submitted on 10/31/11 by Dan Coombs 
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Works Details

>Turnage, Mark-Anthony : Anna Nicole
  • Performers: Susan Bickley (Mezzo Soprano); Rebecca De Pont Davies (Mezzo Soprano); Grant Doyle (Baritone); Gerald Finley (Baritone); Peter Hoare (Tenor); Lore Lixenberg (Mezzo Soprano); Alan Oke (Baritone); Andrew Rees (Tenor); Eva-Maria Westbroek (Soprano); Jeremy White (Bass)
  • Conductor: Anthony Pappano
  • Ensemble: Royal Opera Chorus
  • Period Time: Contemporary
  • Form: Opera/Operetta