In 10 Words or Less
Not your father's opera (nor mine)
Loves: Modern musicals
Likes: Good singers, interesting set design
Dislikes: Opera (apparently)
Hates: The Anna Nicole Smith Era
A short while ago I had posted on Facebook that, though the latest generation has only known a world seemingly on the edge of collapse at every minute, they also have no idea who Anna Nicole Smith is, and for that they are fortunate. Even in today's reality TV-infused culture, to watch an episode of her series is to know true disgust, as even though she was a fully compliant, willing participant in a very public spiral toward death, it is, especially in hindsight, a disturbing peek behind a curtain that never should have been opened. And fortunately, there's very little detritus left behind to remind us of her sordid tale.
That is, until the Royal Opera House in London commissioned well-respected composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas, of Jerry Springer: The Opera fame, to bring the late Playmate's life to the opera stage, smashing the lowest of low-culture into the snootiest of high-culture. But as the men behind this creation were quick to point out, opera's always embraced tabloid-style drama, and those stories just become more respectable with the passing of time. I can't wait for the Bill Clinton opera.
Now, like many people, my knowledge of opera is limited mainly to The Barber of Seville (or more to the point the Figaro stuff), Bizet's Carmen and many so-called "rock operas." But from what my wife tells me and some quick reading, opera is manly characterized by everything being sung (rather than songs between scenes of dialogue) and sung in some unique, dramatic ways. I like musical theater (at least the mainstream shows) but if this is opera, count me out.
As much as I can appreciate the quality of their voices, and as Smith. Eva-Maria Westbroek is a stunning diva, it's annoying to hear people "sing" everything they say. Those quotes around sing are there because it's not like they are singing songs, with harmony and rhythm. They are simply singing what you would normally say, only with exaggeration, power and pitch. At times it felt like the singing was competing with the score, rather than cooperating, creating a sound that was genuinely uncomfortable, because you had quality music and quality singing, but no "songs."
If someone is looking to make some decent money on Broadway, they should take the general structure of this show, write some catchy songs and sell some tickets. The story, though well-known to many, is a classic tale, put together quite well, tracing her path from her early days in Texas to her stripping career (where she met her sugar daddy), before jumping 10 years in a unique graphic/musical interlude, diving head-first into her short-lived life of fame and pain. The mix of a classy art like opera with such low-rent subject matter creates a culture clash on par with an Avenue Q, however this show is somehow far more crass, with extended scenes about her getting breast implants, her stripping career and an absolutely tasteless song about raping the American Dream. There's part of me that wonders how much of this show is parodying Smith, and how much is using her to parody America.
Including her lawyer Stern and mother Virgie (Susan Bickley and Gerald Finley, respectively) as guiding voices/narrators for the different stages of Smith's life and utilizing the media as the chorus (though a bit on the nose) were inspired choices, as is the introduction of the faceless camera people who slowly come to infest the stage, a striking visual metaphor, particularly during the dramatic end of the show, which is easily the best part of the opera. Broadway can even utilize the stage set-up, which makes good use of minimal design to make an impact with primary elements, like the bed shared by Smith and her husband, or the strip club she works at. It's actually rather strange how much of this show works, yet, as a whole, it falls flat. Maybe opera just isn't for me.
This two-hour opera arrives on one Blu-Ray disc, which is packed in a standard Blu-Ray keepcase with a booklet that includes an essay by academic/critic Hugo Shirley, a synopsis of the show and a cast list. It looks pretty hefty at first, but that's only because the contents are repeated twice, in French and German. The disc offers audio in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and LPCM stereo 2.0 while subtitles are available in English, French, German and Spanish (and you'll need them.)
Visually, the 1.78:1 1080i (note the i) AVC-encoded transfer is rather nice, but didn't scream high-definition. Looking for fine detail in the video image, even during the close-ups on the performers, didn't turn up the quality expected in this format, but at the same time, it was free of defects and noticeable compression artifacts. On the other hand, the color was a touch too intense in spots, partially a result of the garishly-colored costumes and sets, leaving some minor smearing and haloing, and wide shots were a bit soft. The whole affair just lacked that pop the format promises.
The audio on this show is severely disappointing. Now, I've not watched a lot of opera on DVD, but I've done a little research, and apparently the audio at an opera is frequently presented without amplification, and it's a source of pride, if not snobbery, that mics are not present. Well, if this is a proper reproduction of what an opera sounds like, opera sounds terrible. If not for the subtitles (which are also presented above the stage in the actual opera house) I would have little idea what was being sung. Now, that's fine if I don't speak the language, but this was simply a matter of a lack of definition and volume. I'd crank up the volume to hear a singer, only to be blasted out of my chair by the orchestra. It was frustrating, because when you could hear the voices, they were crisp and beautiful. It was even worse though when the chorus of tens of people would sing, as it would just become muddled. If this is what these shows sound like, I will not be attending a live opera any time soon. On the other hand, the music is very nice, delivered strongly from the center channel, with some bleed through in the surrounds (along with some neat separation in the mix) where you also get some presence from the audience.
Not a lot to check out here, with just a short photo gallery, with one picture per actor in the main cast, and an 8:25 look at the production, including a quick peek at the effort to "Anna-fy" the Royal Opera House for the show, and an interview with Westbroek, as well as a look at her rehearsals.
The Bottom Line
I'm no Philistine, but I guess I'm just not a super classy guy who enjoys opera. Or perhaps this is just a bad opera. Who's to say, behinds the many people who made this show a hit in London, and the critics who raved about it. Either way, it was not my cup of big-breasted, white trash tea, despite finding a lot of elements that actually appealed to me. The Blu-Ray presentation didn't impress me much either, especially with the limited extras, but perhaps you'll feel differently about the show. People's opinions certainly didn't stop Anna Nicole Smith from reaching her dream, for a short moment.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.