Mark-Anthony Turnage. Anna Nicole. DVD. Antonio Pappano / Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Directed by Richard Jones. With Eva-Maria Westbroek, Gerald Finley, Alan Oke, and Susan Bickley. [Covent Garden, London]: Opus Arte, 2011. OA 1054 D. $29.99.
Two recent offerings from Opus Arte, Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd and Mark-Anthony Turnage's Anna Nicole, may seem like strange bedfellows, but they provide a fascinating perspective on how British opera has changed over sixty years. Budd premiered in 1951, Anna Nicole in 2011. Both draw on products of American culture, despite their many differences. The former adapts Hermann Melville's 1924 novella Billy Budd, Foretopman, and the latter subjects the life of American celebrity Vickie Lynn Marshall (better known as Anna Nicole Smith) to operatic treatment.
The recording of Billy Budd is superlative. The Glyndebourne Festival's 2010 production of Britten's celebrated opera marks theater director Michael Grandage's first foray into the opera world, and under his direction the entire cast delivers convincing, nuanced performances. Vocally and physically, baritone Jacques Imbrailo captures the youthful innocence of the title character, a quality somewhat lacking in Thomas Allen's Billy in the 1988 English National Opera production (prior to this release, it was one of only two Billy Budd recordings on DVD). With his powerful bass voice, Phillip Ens gives a sinister, compelling portrayal of the malevolent master-at-arms, John Claggart, and as Captain Vere, tenor John Mark Ainsley embodies the opera's conflicted protagonist.
The set design by. Christopher Oram and lighting design by Paule Constable are particularly effective. Together, the two evoke the claustrophobic innards of the late eighteenth-century British man-of-war on which Melville's story of evil and innocence--adapted for the opera stage by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier--plays out. Conductor Mark Elder leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra and singers with assurance, offering a dramatically sensitive pacing of the opera. The sound quality of the recording is rich and clear, with options for stereo sound or DTS digital surround sound. The video direction is equally fine, striking just the right balance between wide-angle shots that reveal the thrilling full company numbers--such as the "Starry Vere" sequence in Act I and the opening sequence of Act II--and closer shots that capture some of the finer acting moments.
Two brief extras are included on the DVD. "Introducing Billy Budd" interweaves a loose synopsis of the opera with interviews with Elder, Grandage, Imbrailo, and Ainsley that provide insight into characters' motivations. "Designs on Billy Budd" centers on the opera's critically-acclaimed visual design, with commentary by Grandage, Oram, and Constable.
Anna Nicole is a far cry from Billy Budd, both musically and dramaturgically, and attests to the influence of musical theater on the operatic genre over the past half-century. With its unconventional subject matter, the opera recreates the strangely compelling voyeuristic lure of reality television. The opera premiered in February 2011 at the Royal Opera House (ROH). In keeping with the media frenzy surrounding the real Smith's life, the production generated an enormous amount of popular and critical interest, and just over a week after the premiere BBC television broadcasted a recording of the performance.
Anna Nicole adopts a chronological approach in its rendering of Smith's life. Over the course of seven scenes, the first act traces the early life of the heroine (sung with aplomb by Wagnerian soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek). Despite misgivings by her mother (mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley), Smith strikes out ambitiously into the world, acquiring oversized breast implants in the quest to someday hook a rich client at the Houston "gentlemen's club" where she works. The act culminates in her marriage to the octogenarian oil tycoon J. Marshall Howard II (tenor Alan Oke). In the nine scenes of the second act, Smith's life spirals downward, propelled by the machinations of her exploitative lawyer (baritone Gerald Finley) and her destructive addiction to wealth, fame, and pain medication. Through it all, television cameras and a chorus of reporters follow Smith with dogged persistence, capturing and commenting on her life.
Conductor Antonio Pappano and the ROH orchestra give a vivid account of Turnage's eclectic, accessible score, which mixes jazz, popular, and modernist idioms. At times, however, the music competes for attention with Richard Thomas's verbose libretto. Thomas, best known for his libretto for Jerry Springer: The Opera, supplies an incessant stream of rhyming couplets that capture the crassness of Smith's story with heavy doses of obscene language that some viewers may find off-putting. The libretto is complemented by garish, oversized sets that effectively illustrate the protagonist's propensity for excess.
Anna Nicole was released on DVD less than a year after its premiere, and this quick turnaround occasionally shows. The audio (offered in stereo or DTS digital surround sound) lacks clarity and balance at times, and the video direction seems less deliberate than in Billy Budd. A short DVD extra introduced by Pappano, "Production Insights," sits somewhere between a commercial for and a mini-documentary about the opera, with interviews with Turnage, Thomas and Westbroek.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
EDITED BY LESLIE ANDERSEN