Anna Nicole, New York City Opera, 2013

From The New York Review of Books:

How fitting and dispiriting that an opera so determined to adapt to the times was produced by a company that ultimately failed to do so.

The libretto by Richard Thomas is a vibrant mash-up of contradictory attributes, at once slangy and poetic, filthy and elevated, hilarious and touching. The most trenchant lines were delivered by the chorus, a hortatory crew who in the NYCO presentation were as admonishing as any band of onstage commentators since the ancient Greeks, though rather more profane:

Once upon a time
Not so many years ago
There was a lady
Who wanted to be Marilyn Monroe?
Marilyn Monroe
Some saw her as an icon
Others as a ho…

Stripper, playmate
Wife of a billionaire
She tried to make her mark
She tried to get her share
Tabloid queen
Borderline obscene
Known across the globe
In all its cities
For her sensual peccadilloes
And her silicone titties…

… This is one bleak nihilistic tale
An absurdist tale of woe
About a beauty wannabe
Who was gone from the get-go.

In the title role, the stunning Sarah Joy Miller displayed a mixture of dramatic credibility, musical confidence (if not flawless voice), and flat-out sexiness that I have not witnessed since the German soprano Anja Silja’s mesmerizing Salome in the late 1960s. Miller was supported by a superb cast that featured Robert Brubaker as Marshall, her codgerly but still horny meal ticket; Rod Gilfry as her opportunistic lover and shyster lawyer Howard Stern; and Nicholas Barasch as Anna Nicole’s adored but understandably screwed-up son, Daniel, a non-singing role that culminates with a plaintive litany of the multiple drugs that ultimately kill him. Conductor Steven Sloan delivered a brisk, authoritative account of the staccato, propulsive score.

What astonishes, in retrospect, is that such a fresh and convincing production seems to have reached the stage in New York only through an opera company that had long ago stopped paying heed to financial solvency. The New York City Opera was founded in 1943 by the populist but opera-loving Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia. His goal was to bring high musical culture to average citizens—the city’s garment workers, longshoremen, domestics, shopgirls, and cops—modern-day successors of Walt Whitman’s culture-hungry “best average of American-born mechanics.”

Anna Nicole, New York City Opera, 2013

“High Culture Laid Low: A New York Requiem”, Martin Filler, The New York Review of Books