Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole in Nuremberg

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Anna Nicole tells the story of a woman from a dysfunctional Texan family who, to achieve success as a stripper, has her breasts enlarged. Initially experiencing success and marriage to an elderly oil billionaire, her life subsequently, as a result of drugs, alcohol and ill health, falls apart. It was so well received when given its premiere at Covent Garden in 2011 that I attended the revival in Nuremberg with high expectations. I have been pondering since on why I found it disappointing. And I was not alone, for the applause at the end was decidedly luke warm.

Not having been to the London performances I cannot compare the production or the quality of the soloists, but it is hard to believe that what was offered in Nuremberg was significantly inferior. The staging by Jens-Daniel Herzog was first rate. Events took place on and around a performing arena, predominantly bare apart from a few necessary props and several iconic symbols. The Greek-style chorus, commenting throughout on the action, were placed mostly in the rear but at times joined in the racy movements. The costumes (designer Sibylle Gädecke) were suitably glitzy and the general ambience, though faithfully capturing the glamour but also tawdriness of the girlie world, was never excessively vulgar.

Emily Newton had to meet the daunting challenges, dramatic, vocal and physical, of the title role and though her projection of the text was perhaps a little underpowered, the character portrayal was convincing both dramatically and vocally. There were strong supporting performances, particularly by Richard Morrison as her lawyer and Almerija Delic as her mother. Lutz de Veer and his orchestra seemed comfortable in the jazzy, angular score.

I had to admire, too, Richard Thomas’ sharply crude but surprisingly poetic libretto written, much of it, in rhyming couplets. But then we come to the general theme of the piece and Turnage’s treatment of it. The trouble is, I think that versions, like this, of the futility and emptiness of the American dream are too familiar, perhaps banal. Particularly in the cinema, we have become too accustomed to stories of individuals selling their soul and/or body for fame and fortune that their plight arouses little sympathy, and the telling of the tale little poignancy.

What then of Turnage’s score? I had been overwhelmed by the urgency and brittle strength of his first opera, Greek, based on Berkoff’s remarkable version of Oedipus. Anna Nicole is quite different. To reflect the sleazy world portrayed in the piece, the music is racy and jazz-inspired but – dare I say it? – predictable. There was little in it to startle one into feelings of horror, and nothing poignant to arouse one’s sympathy for the protagonist’s predicament. It was, indeed, a case of déjà vu.