We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Robert Brubaker and Sarah Joy Miller (photo by Stephanie Berger)
We had a grand time at Anna Nicole, what we hope will NOT be New York City Opera's swan song at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  Yes, it is vulgar, offensive, filthy and trashy but it is also vastly entertaining, something we cannot say for most contemporary opera.  Pursuing the line of thought from our review of The Heirs of Tantalus, every culture has its mythology.  In present day USA, our mythology has lots to do with celebrity--people who are famous for being famous.  We wonder what motivates them to make the worst possible self-destructive decisions; we watch them as we watch aerialists on the high wire, just waiting for them to fall.  These celebrities seem to carry the weight of our own secret wishes for fame and fortune; if our lives are boring we can focus on the continual excitement we believe they experience.

So, the story of Anna Nicole Smith's rise and fall is compelling.  It is a tribute to the impressive gifts of Sarah Joy Miller whose breakout performance as the eponymous heroine leaves us feeling sympathy rather than contempt for this misguided creature.  Likewise, the performance of Robert Brubaker left us feeling nothing but compassion for J. Howard Marshall II, the very wealthy and very elderly man Anna Nicole married.

Act I chronicles her escape from a small backwater town and a trailer-trash family to the bright lights of Houston (!) where a dead end job and a dead end marriage leave her wanting more.  There is a wonderful scene in a gaudy Gentlemen's Club where the audience learns the difference between strippers and lap dancers from a quartet of lovely ladies of the latter persuasion.  A trio of pole-dancers perform in the background.  The language is, well, salty, as befits the environment.  The goal of these gals is to snag a wealthy guy and, after purchasing a pair of huge breasts  from Doctor Yes (Richard Troxell) Anna succeeds.  A quartet of women in the office bemoaning their underendowment is a highlight.  Another highlight was our heroine prancing on a red carpet and singing about her Jimmy Choo's.

The huge mammaries are said to have caused dreadful back pain requiring abundant medication to which Anna gets addicted.  Her charmed life with her generous new husband ends when he dies and life is downhill from there.  During an instrumental interlude, ten years pass and Anna gets fat and falls under the spell of her attorney/friend/lover Stern (Rod Gilfry).  She fails to get any funds from the Marshall family and becomes a bad joke.  The laughter heard constantly from the audience during Act I fades away as we see Anna paying the price for trying to live out her dream, now a nightmare.

Her mother Virgie was played by Susan Bickley and her abusive father by James Barbour.  Aunt Kay was played by Mary Testa and John Easterlin was fine as Larry King.  There was not a single performance that fell short of superb.  The chorus, led by Chorus master Bruce Stasyna, was excellent.  Set design by Miriam Buether and Costume design by Nicky Gillibrand were equally clever and brimming with fabulousness.  Direction by Richard Gerard Jones kept everything moving in the spirit of the piece.  Aletta Collins' choreography added to the mix.

But this is opera and we find ourselves delaying a discussion of the music.  We found Mark-Anthony Turnage's music to be accessible but insufficiently tuneful, as is generally the case in contemporary opera.  There was so much happening dramatically that it was easy to ignore the music with the exception of the orchestral interlude during which we enjoyed the conducting of Steven Sloane.  The libretto by Richard Thomas got some points for rhyming but lost some by not scanning well.  There were some wonderful moments when the phrasing and the music worked together to fine effect but there were other moments when the music and lyrics failed to support one another, giving the impression of having been translated from another language with phrasing that undercut the rhyme scheme.

Nonetheless, we were royally entertained by the excellent production values and are happy to call Anna Nicole a "musical entertainment".

© meche kroop

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