The Manchester Report

Back in January when I bought my tickets to see the world première of Rufus Wainwright’s first opera at the Manchester International Festival I was expecting to see a pretty piece of music.  Something that blended Wainwright’s distinctively melodic pop styling with (what I hoped to be) a competent homage to his favourite nineteenth century composers.  I was sceptical about the dramatic possibilities of his ‘day in the life of an opera singer’ concept, but hoped he could pull it all together.

Primma Donna

Prima Donna jumped a few hurdles to get on stage at Manchester this year – originally commissioned as part of a new talent project by the New York Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater, Wainwright and Met general manager Peter Gelb had a few disagreements about the piece.  Gelb wanted an American opera in English for a vacancy in the 2012 season, Wainwright’s Parisian diva couldn’t wait to get on stage.

Luckily Manchester International Festival, Sadler’s Wells, Luminato (Toronto Festival of the Arts and Creativity) and Melbourne International Festival took on the commission: it’ll be produced at Sadler’s Wells and Luminato again next year (I haven’t found dates for Melbourne quite yet).

Prima Donna was surprising. In parts the music was the sort of grand romantic reminiscence I had expected, in parts quite modern and minimal.  Dramatically I was impressed.  What could have turned out quite silly and dull – the reflections of a grand dame in the twilight of her career – just wasn’t.  This is Puccini gone PoMo.

Postmodernism worries opera critics.  It tends to only rear its mangled head in production design  – cameras on stage, characters dressed as famous historical figures, photos of recent military conflict projected behind Giulio Ceseare – more than it is intentionally embraced in modern compositions.

But Prima Donna would fill almost all the rows of Ihab Hassan’s definitive table of the postmodern.  Ageing diva Régine (Janis Kelly) is kept company by a Rossini worthy slapstick posse: Her butler Philippe (Jonathan Summers), maid Marie (Rebecca Bottone) and doorman Francois (movement artist Steve Kirkham).  She is visited by a journalist (William Joyner), and together they sing a duet from her most famous role, Alienor d’Aquitaine, then share a passionate kiss.  In the company of Marie the next day, Regine reflects on her career, romantic life and time as a student at the conservatory, accompanied by some very lovely deconstructed arpeggios dragging out a fantastically sinister tone.

But it is not just the opera-within-an-opera metafiction that makes Prima Donna dramatically interesting.  Toward the end of the second half Andre the journalist returns, explaining to Régine he cannot stay because he has plans with his fiancée Sophie  – who then appears silhouetted in the doorway dressed as Madame Butterfly.  Régine dismisses Andre and her staff, and after signing one last record for Marie, climbs through the window, prepared to plunge to her death like Tosca.  In the light of the Bastille day festivities she sings her last aria, and decides not to jump.  Accepting that her career, like the fireworks, could be both brief and spectacular.

I really enjoyed it, and judging from the number of curtain calls, so did most of the audience.  Parts were Janis Kelly and Rebecca Bottone sung together were particularly beautiful, Summers and Joyner both suited their roles very well.  Daniel Kramer’s direction and Anthony McDonald’s design worked really well in highlighting the vibrancy of the opera. We waited around for a little while outside after the performance to see Rufus who, resplendent in top had and madras tail-coat, also seemed quite happy with the show.

Rufus in hat

Rufus, mingling with fans after the performance.

Prima Donna
By Rufus Wainwright

Palace Theatre, Manchester
12/07/09

Performances 14, 17 & 19 July, some tickets remaining (Edit:  all gone!).

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