The life story of Anna Nicole Smith is so overloaded with melodrama and prurience that it’s a wonder it took somebody this long to turn it into an opera. Hers is exactly the right kind of over-the-top life to lend itself to the form’s grand gestures, hedonistic escalation, and tragic tumbles — in essence, Smith was a modern day Carmen.
Anna Nicole, initially commissioned by London’s Royal Opera House, first debuted in February 2011. New York City Opera is now presenting its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House (through Sept. 28). Its roots are telling, as from a distance Anna Nicole acts as a scathing indictment of the sort of uniquely American fame that Smith helped introduce at the turn of the 21st century. But the message gets muddled in the two-and-a-half-hour production: Her drug-assisted trip from small town stripper to Playboy model to reality-TV cautionary tale is often presented as an inevitable and unavoidable cycle of exploitation care of outside forces, except when the show pauses to be outright cruel to its protagonist.
Composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas don’t take sides on whether Smith genuinely loved elderly sugar daddy J. Howard Marshall, but she does exhibit signs of flailing grief after he passes. But the story then time-jumps 10 years to a notorious appearance on Larry King Live, poking fun at Smith for gaining weight in the intervening years. Are we meant to have sympathy for Smith or is she a figure of scorn? The show can’t decide.
Luckily, Anna Nicole is held aloft by Sarah Joy Miller’s performance in the title role. Hers is no easy task, as the part itself forces Miller not only to sing in a twangy Texas accent but also to wear a pair of ludicrously large prosthetic breasts. Through it all, Miller’s lovely soprano never wavers, and she imbues Smith with a tactile sense of pathos while still driving home the fact that she was a dangerous combination of limited means and uncapped ambition. Miller manages to find the balance in Smith that the material itself fails to grasp.
The cast surrounding Miller is uniformly excellent as well, especially Susan Bickley’s turn as Smith’s vilified mother, who acts as Anna Nicole’s hard-living moral center. Her arias, delivered with a well-worn snarl, are the purest musical highlights in Turnage’s score, which otherwise leans heavily on repetitive (if often funny) recitative. The music doesn’t conform too heavily to traditional operatic tropes, but it’s also relatively allergic to pop: Though there are plenty of cultural nods embedded in the lyrics, you won’t be walking away humming any tunes. It’s no Tommy, but it won’t require a Wagnerian ear either.
In addition to Miller’s stunning performance as Smith, the other draw is Anna Nicole’s striking visual style, crafted with ballsy panache by scenic designer Miriam Buether. The stage is filled with cartoonishly huge ephemera (giant dog bobble-heads, a massive stage-engulfing mattress), even surrounding the leading lady with more and more cameras as her life becomes less and less her own. Director Richard Jones’ closing tableau, which finds Smith settling into a body bag in her garbage-strewn living room as an army of dancers with cameras for heads close in on her, is phenomenally striking. But the message remains frustratingly ambiguous: Was she driven to an early grave because she demanded we watch, or because we couldn’t stop looking? Like its namesake, Anna Nicole just doesn’t know. B-