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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.
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, mingling with fans after the performance.
By Rufus Wainwright
Palace Theatre, Manchester
Performances 14, 17 & 19 July, some tickets remaining (Edit: all gone!).
I just got a call notifying me I’d won tickets to a surprise free gig Rufus is putting on “as a thank you” to fans. I won’t be in Manchester on the day, so I turned them down – but I recommend anyone who bought tickets through Quaytickets keep their phone handy.
It seems to be all Rufus, all the time leading up to the première of Prima Donna on Friday Night (I’ve already taken note of things I anticipate will annoy me in press coverage of the event here.)
Last night BBC1 aired a documentary about Wainwright and his new composition, combining a quite thorough profile of his life and career thus far with some great footage of early Opera North rehearsals for the upcoming show.
A highlight was an interview with Renée Fleming, who was very complimentary towards Wainwright’s music and spoke out against the way opera is increasingly becoming a museum art form.
Wainwright spoke passionately about opera “his religion and saving grace”, and shared some hilarious videos of himself as a teenager acting out his favourite operas with his cousins. In Tosca he played Scarpia and swept about narrating in an impeccable pantomime villain voice.
If you want to see an example of Rufus’ love of opera, google his video “April fools” (It’s not on youtube at the moment for some copyright reason or another). It’s just one of his pop songs, but in the clip he gallivants around with several doomed opera herones, including Tosca, Cio-Cio San from Madama Butterfly and Mimi from La Boheme.
The program suffered from some of the usual hyperbole “…we follow Rufus as he takes on his biggest challenge yet. Creating from scratch a new opera” (as opposed to all those old operas he’s composed by running together advertising jingles), and excessive focus on his personal life and struggles with drug addiction.
As I’ll be reviewing Prima Donna on the weekend I might as explain how I came to be a fan of Rufus (the story of why I’m a fan of opera is a longer story that will have to wait for another day).
It starts with Bowie. All good stories begin with David Bowie. I was at a music shop and picked up a copy of Wainwright’s fourth album, Want Two, thinking it was David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World. They do look pretty similar:
I eventually realised that it wasn’t some new release of Bowie, but bought the CD anyway and was very impressed by Rufus’ melodic, instrumental style. I saw him play in Sydney early last year and was blown away by his performance on stage.
Now I’m not claiming that Rufus is going to win the prize for young-ish-musician-sort-of-like-Bowie (because I’ve already handed that prize out to someone who shares his interest in electronic music) but I think Rufus and Bowie have a similarly theatrical performance persona.
I’m not jumping to any conclusions about what sort of composer Wainwright will be. I realise Prima Donna might not be any good. At very least he seems to be passionate enough about the form to give it a really good shot – non-traditional composers have done opera really well before.
But I love new music, and can’t wait to get to Manchester and have a look.
OR: The Prima Donna drinking game. Take a shot each time…
1) Wainwright himself is described as a ‘diva’ or ‘prima donna’, and/or the plot of the opera is described as autobiographical.
2) The word ‘popera’ is used.
3) Confusion over why the libretto is in French/why Wainwright is not performing.
But I am very much looking forward to seeing it.
UPDATE: read my review here.