TURNAGE: Anna Nicole
TAKEMITSU: From me flows what you call time. SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony
No. 5 in D minor
British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, librettist Richard Thomas and director Richard Jones have collaborated on this opera about the tragic life of Anna Nicole Smith (1967-2007), American model, actress and personality. Smith was a poor student, never finished high school, worked in Wal-Mart and as a waitress where she met her first husband, Billy Smith, a union that produced a son, Daniel Wayne Smith, who died in 2006 from a drug overdose. Feeling her "career" was getting her nowhere, Smith had substantial breast implants (vividly depicted in the opera), and her appearance as a centerfold in Playboy Magazine attracted national attention. In 1991, while appearing in a Houston strip club, she met oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall who became infatuated with her . In 1994 they married; Anna was 26, Marshall was 89. He died in 1995 after being married to Anna for 13 months. His huge estate ($1.6 billion-with a "b") was contested for months in various courts, and the final ruling left nothing for Anna. Smith had a daughter in 2006, Dannielynn Hope Marshall. There was speculation about who fathered the child, but it finally was determined through DNA that he was a former boyfriend, Larry Birkhead. She died in 2007 from a drug overdose, a grotesque "celebrity" who often seemed demented. 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 Westbrook 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. Anna Nicole i a good show, diminished only by a few lapses into poor taste.
Japanese conductor Yutaka Sado (b. 1961), a rising figure on the conducting scene, dreamt when he was very young that he would conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, and it happened May 20, 2011 when he led this program of Takemitsu and Shostakovich. It was an impressive occasion in every way, with full-bodied playing by the famous orchestra, and Sado in top form. Takemitu's fascinating From me flows what you call time was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for their centenary in 1990. In a way, it is a theatre piece, as in addition to three groups of percussionists on stage, there are two high above the stage each connected five colored ribbons; the colors are the same as those of the Tibetan flag, blue for water, red for fire, yellow for earth, green for wind, and white for sky. The score calls for five master percussionists, in this case players of the Berlin Philharmonic, each colorfully garbed. Although this has a few moments of massed sound, the score is basically a gentle study in tintinnabulation, and it includes several improvised sections by the soloists. The Shostakovich is given a direct, powerful reading building to a powerful climax. The bonus interview features Sado talking about his life and the music. Video and audio are excellent. This is a fine issue, highly recommended.
Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny already is well represented on DVD. This site mentioned a production from the Los Angeles Opera conducted by James Conlon (REVIEW), and there also is an extraordinary production from the Met taped in 1995 with James Levine on the podium and a perfect trio of leading singers: Teresa Stratas, Astrid Varnay and Richard Cassilly, also available on DVD. Mahagonny was presented in 1998 in Salzburg and now it appears on DVD. The production directed by Peter Zadek with costumes by Norma Moriceau and rather bare sets by Richard Peduzzi. Audiences were enthusiastic, but I imagine much of this was audience loyalty to Gwyneth Jones and Catherine Malfitano, both considerably past their prime; it is a bit of a trial to hear the sounds Jones produces, although she is a dynamic presence on stage, her slight frame very different from most sopranos who specialize in Strauss and Wagner. Jerry Hadley is in fine form as Jimmy, and the supporting cast is strong. Brian Large's video direction is of his usual standard; audio is not available in multi-channel. This offers little competition to other versions mentioned.
R.E.B. (December 2011)