Keeping abreast of the situation: Turnage’s ‘Anna Nicole’

Not being able to make it to London to see the performance, I finally caught up with Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage when it was shown on BBC4 last week.

Brash, confrontational, full of vigour: the typical Turnage traits were evident in a musical score bristling with life. Known for his bold contemporary sound, Turnage demonstrated a more melodic side too with a couple of lyrical arias, most noticeably ‘You need a little luck, girls’ in Act One.

Somehow, the second act seems to lack the dynamic trajectory of the first: Anna Nicole’s decline and fall didn’t seem so precipitous as her first Act ascent to stardom. But the lurking dancing cameras (played by ballet dancers wearing film-camera head-masks) that stalked her throughout the second act were an effective short-hand for the glare of the media spotlight that drove her to her death. Even in labour, the lawyer Stern (brilliantly played by baritone Gerald Finlay) is exploiting her for the benefit of the cameras filming her giving birth.

Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek was a tour de force in her realisation of the role, dominating the stage whether learning the tricks of the trade as a pole-dancer, partying to excess, or sitting in front of the television demanding food.

By turns garish, provocative, sexy and sleazy, the opera paints a very two-dimensional story of Anna Nicole’s rise and fall; the tide of inevitablility drawing her onwards and upwards through the first half is captivating, but the second half somehow never quite deflates the balloon with sufficient drama. The death of her son, her continuing back-pain after breast-enhancing surgery, her addiction to medication to treat the pain, her reckless partying lifestyle; although the wheels come off her ride towards the American Dream, they do so perhaps rather more gently than they should; we need to witness a more desperate self-destructive decline – this felt more of a gentle downhill run, until the wheel-less cart rests gently at the bottom. There needs to be more of a sense of desperate spiralling out of control, in order for us truly to feel some empathy with her eventual fate.

The opera is being shown on BBC4 again tonight, and is broadcast on Radio 3 this Saturday at 9.30pm, and will be available on iPlayer for a week. Listen and judge for yourself…

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