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A NIGHT AT THE OPERA WITH ANNA NICOLE AND JOHN PAUL JONES

9 March 2011 8,518 views 3 Comments

Own up time. My only previous flirtation with anything remotely operatic has been The Who’s Tommy. I loved the film for it’s sheer absurdness and the album (particularly Lou Reizner’s orchestral version) is still a particular favourite.

Standing outside the mightily impressive Royal Opera House last Friday in London’s Covent Garden, I had the feeling the evening’s entertainment ahead was going to be something altogether a little more high brow.

It was but then again it wasn’t.

I was there of course to witness John Paul Jones contribution as the bass guitarist in a jazz trio in one of the scenes for the much acclaimed and much talked about new opera production Anna Nicole.

When I spoke to John last November at the Classic Rock Awards, he had informed me he would be appearing during this run and I eagerly seized the opportunity to check out this latest string to his bow, particularly as JPJ has plans for his own opera ahead based on the Isabel Allende short story The Judge’s Wife.

So it is around 7.30pm on a Friday evening that I find myself in row A of the amphitheatre seating area inside the very plush Royal Opera House. This is all a long way from the more rock’n’ roll surroundings of say the Shepherds Bush Empire. Although fairly high up, I have a clear sightline and overview of the stage.

The audience assembled are a combination of regular theatre/opera going enthusiasts all suited and booted with nether a Levi jean in sight. The pre publicity for Anna Nicole has brought a younger element many of whom line the standing only railings above me. For this is one hot ticket and the Royal Opera House is packed to the rafters.

The Anna Nicole opera is being staged for just six performances of which this is the final night. It’s evident this is not your average classical opera. Written by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas (the latter was one of the co creators of the controversial Jerry Springer The Opera), it’s very much a modern day staging with a subject matter that is bawdy and brassy in both the story and delivery.

So the story: A true one of course about Anna Nicole – raised from a relatively poor family who dreams of stardom and notoriety and finds it when she marries billionaire  J. Howard Marshall II. It all goes wrong in classic rags to riches to rags style as after J. Howard dies, she finds the family contesting the will and she comes out with very little. The downward spiral continues with the drug related death of her son and she eventually succumbs to a drug overdose herself. As the opera programme notes reveal – the morale of all this there’s no such thing as a free ranch…

Such a story probably has all has the makings of a great movie but how will it fare in an opera setting?

I am about to find out.

Curtains raise and enter the chorus line to begin narrating the story. This is where you have to get your head very quickly around the fact that there is no dialogue- every line is sung. It does take a bit of getting used to. However once that element is in place, the story unfolds with relative ease. It’s aided considerably by a screen that hangs Earls Court like above the stage. As the words are sung, simultaneously the lyrics appear on the screen. With the bawdiness of the content this does make for some er.. rather shocking reading.. Hearing lines such as ‘’I’ll fuck you raw and raw’’ and ‘’You pussy whipped ass bitch’’ is one thing –seeing them appear on screen in all their glory is quite another.

I can recall being pretty taken aback when I first heard John Lennon use the F word in his song Working Class Hero back in the early 70s. How times have changed and here we are in the historic establishment of the Royal Opera House and such words are merely glossed over. However I did detect a slight embarrassed chuckle from some of the chattering classes present at some of the more expletive ridden laugh out loud lines.

No matter – the overall performances go down a storm in particular the lead role played with exuberance and much front (yes pun totally intended!) by Dutch soprano Eva-Marie Westbroek.

Musically the orchestral score being played live below is reminiscent of the brashness of West Side Story, which is fine with me as we had a copy of that iconic musical soundtrack in our house when it came out in the 1960s.

The first half zips along aided by some clever settings – the boob enhancement scene and the lap dancing affair adds to the fun. Interval over and it’s time for the second half and the arrival of our man.

This occurs during a sequence in Act II scene 9 where Anna Nicole decides to boogie it up and throw the party of parties. Enter the jazz trio led by the dapper suited John Paul Jones looking probably not unlike he did way back when he was part of the Jet Harris & Tony Meehan Combo. Along with drummer Peter Erkskine and guitarist John Parricelli, JPJ leads them through a pair of upbeat funky numbers backed by the chorus line.

The good news for me is that Jonesy is to the right of my seating and the bass is well up in the mix. I was of course probably the only one present who noticed a Crunge like chord change in the first piece and JPJ jigging a merry bass dance on the black and white Fender on the second – not unlike the one he conjured up for the revamped Whole Lotta Love middle segment that lit up that field just outside Knebworth all those years ago. As ever, it was a sheer delight to see this incredibly talented musician undertaking yet another on stage role.

Photo – Andrew Winning

With the party scene over, our man exited right and from then on things got a little dark. There was a humorous segment based on Anna’s appearance on the Larry King American TV show but the tragi-comedy feel subsided as the story came to its inevitable sad conclusion.

A curtain call brought Jon Paul Jones back on stage and the whole cast were rapturously received –the biggest accolade unsurprisingly being afforded to Eva-Marie Westbroek.

As a modern opera, overall I enjoyed Anna Nicole immensely. Perhaps there was the novelty aspect of it being so vastly different from say The Band Of Joy or Black Country Communion but it was all highly entertaining. I think I would struggle with anything more classic but I have had a taste of the opera and it was an enlightening experience.

Come the day the Zep story is transferred to an opera setting  and the lyric board lights up above and the chorus line as one belt out the line ‘’But this is tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow’’ and a dapper bass man takes centre stage….I’ll be well prepared.

Before any such notion though, John Paul Jones has his own opera to do…and you just know it will be nothing less than captivating.

Dave Lewis, March 9th 2011.

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3 Comments »

  • russell.ritchin said:

    HI DAVE

    THANKS FOR THE REVIEW SOUNDS INTRESTING NIGHT,IF ANYONE WOULD LIKE
    TO SEE THIS OPERA IT WILL BE SHOWN ON BBC 4 AT 9PM THIS COMING FRIDAY
    THE 25TH MARCH.

  • Jez Firth said:

    Thanks as ever Dave, a very enlightening and insightful review.
    See you Saturday?

  • Lorraine Robertson said:

    Great review Dave..sounds like a very interesting evening held in a remarkably stunning theatre. JPJ is so talented and versatile and it must have been a joy to behold!! He looks fab too by the way!! Thanks again for sharing this amazing experience…x

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