Rave reviews (and a legal threat) for Anna Nicole

Feb 18, 2011
Jack Bremer

London opera critics love the tale of Anna Nicole Smith but former partner claims it’s ‘sleazy’

The most hyped modern opera of all time finally opened in London last night. And while the first reviews of Anna Nicole are mainly glowing - one critic claims it will be a "stonking great hit" - a former partner of the tragic heroine is reported to be furious and threatening to sue the Royal Opera House.

Anna Nicole Smith was the stripper and Playboy model who married an American oil billionaire 62 years her senior - J Howard Marshall II - whom she met while performing at Gigi's, a Houston strip club, in 1994.

Fourteen months later he was dead and though she claimed never to have married him for his money, Smith became entangled in a lengthy legal battle, never resolved, over his estate. In 2007, aged 39, she was found dead in a Florida hotel room, having overdosed on prescription drugs.

In short, she's the perfect tragic heroine for a full-on operatic treatment from composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas, who co-wrote the last most-hyped modern opera of all time, Jerry Springer: The Opera.

Anna Nicole is played by the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, wearing huge fake silicone breasts and a wardrobe of suitably skimpy lingerie.

Rupert Christiansen, the Daily Telegraph opera critic, writes:  "It's often very funny, but it's not just a crude farce with a downbeat ending: I think it is underpinned by genuine compassion for Anna Nicole and genuine scorn for the forces that mould, and then destroy her.

"What makes this opera so exciting, however, is that Turnage seems to have found precisely the right musical idiom for such a drama - an Americana, brashly orchestrated and violently propulsive which embraces jazz, blues, musical comedy, and lounge smooch so ingeniously and responsively as to transcend mere pastiche."

Christiansen concludes: "I'll eat my six-gallon hat if it's not a stonking great hit."

Jessica Duchen in the Independent praises the "immaculately slick and deliciously imaginative" production and a score that "packs an irresistibly visceral punch".

She concludes: "Right topic, right time: Anna Nicole overtly puts America on trial: it reminds us that we had it all, but we threw it away. She's not only a tragic heroine: she's the rise and fall of Western excess itself."

Stephen Graham, writing for the website MusicalCriticsm.com, says: "By turns riotous and sorrowful, farcical and principled, the opera set Covent Garden ablaze... drawing gasps, laughter, and stunned smiles in the first half, before moving to a pathos-filled, even profound, denouement."

The only sour note has been struck by Larry Birkhead, the former partner of Anna Nicole Smith and father of her daughter, Dannielynn.

He claims that her estate was not consulted about what he calls a "sleazy" production and says he is considering suing the Royal Opera House.

"If [the producers] are not careful," Birkhead told TMZ.com, "they'll get more than diet pills in the mail."

If Birkhead is serious about suing, he'd better get his skates on. There are only a handful of performances scheduled at the Royal Opera House, finishing on March 4. However, as Richard Morrison writes in today's Times, "I wouldn't be surprised if this sardonic fable for our times finds a second life on screen or in the West End."

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