Author Topic: Rufus Wainwright's opera is thoroughly entertaining, if slightly barmy - Review  (Read 1030 times)

Offline oilgun

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Wainwright's opera is thoroughly entertaining, if slightly barmy
3 out of 4 stars

From Monday's Globe and Mail
Last updated on Monday, Jul. 13, 2009 07:50AM EDT

Prima Donna
•By Rufus Wainwright
•Libretto by Rufus Wainwright and Bernadette Colomine
•Directed by Daniel Kramer
•At the Manchester International Festival

The very first thing that appears on stage in Prima Donna is the title character herself, in a still image on a screen, her eyes closed and mouth open wide. Is she singing or screaming? Pain or ecstasy? It could be either, because she is star of the opera, where moments of joy and sorrow are separated only by a few breaths.

There's no shortage of emotion in Prima Donna, as you might expect from the first opera by Rufus Wainwright, who does nothing by half-notes. Strings soar, teeth are gnashed, heroines throw themselves across beds; it's not opera, it's Opera It makes for a thoroughly entertaining, if slightly barmy, evening.

The prima donna of the title is Régine Saint Laurent (full-heartedly sung by Janis Kelly). Like Tosca, Régine once lived for art, but she's been absent from the stage for several years.

Something terrible happened during the last performance of her signature role, in an opera about Eleanor of Aquitaine.

We know it was terrible because every time she tries to sing its celebrated aria, her voice seizes up just when she gets to the word "sadness" (as I say, subtlety's not a motif either in score or libretto.)

Grimacing from the side of the stage is Philippe, Régine's butler - or rather, her Svengali in butler's clothes. Except in this case, the butler's wearing lime green and a fright wig, and a preposterously over-the-top demeanour (it will not ruin the plot to tell you that, at one point, he screams "I detest you" at his rebellious charge, who has discovered cojones under her ball gown only at the last moment.)

The butler-diva relationship is not the only echo of Sunset Boulevard; there is more than a touch of Norma Desmond in Régine's faded, deluded grandeur. However, that's just one small reference among many - Wainwright's busy mind has filled the stage and libretto, which he co-wrote, with allusions to culture high and low. There's a bit of La Traviata in Régine's relationship with her maid (a lovely turn by Rebecca Bottone) and a lot of Maria Callas in her shellacked helmet of hair. And by calling her Saint Laurent, isn't he paying tribute to the Montreal of his youth?

As Régine is preparing for her comeback, her plans are knocked off-course by the arrival of a reporter (wincingly described as "the top journalist in Paris") who is more fan than interrogator. She succumbs to his adoration, proving that in all her years she has not learned life's essential rule: Don't fall in love with a journalist. There's a sting in the scorpion's tail, a twist at the end in which Wainwright takes a gleeful poke at the fickleness of the press.

The opera is making its debut at the Manchester International Festival, having been rejected by the Met in New York, reportedly over Wainwright's insistence that the libretto be in French. The MIF has taken a chance on pop stars before, with Damon Albarn's similarly lush opera Monkey: Journey to the West opening on the very same stage two years ago. (Toronto audiences can catch Prima Donna next year at the Luminato Festival, which co-commissioned the work.)

Wainwright's been vocal on the subject of returning melody to its central place in opera, and he's kept his word with a score that is luxuriant with strings and brightened with horns. Fans of opera's more recent tendency toward the spare and severe should look elsewhere.

While Prima Donna gallops along like a crazed mare for most of the evening, some of its most affecting moments are its quietest. At the end, Régine sings a lovely, wistful song while she watches the Bastille Day fireworks from her balcony. It's a contemplative moment that contains more ideas than the preceding two hours: Is an artist's life necessarily like those fireworks? Is longevity possible, or even desirable? Should Régine be mourning her lost life, or embracing what's to come? There are fireworks in the sky, but vocally it's stripped down, and haunting. Even in opera, sometimes less is more.

Anyone in Manchester for this festival?

Offline Front-Ranger

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The review is entertaining too! Thanks, Gil!
Too much to do. . .I don't have time to get old!

Offline milomorris

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Thanks for posting this. I'll have to check the opera boards now to see if there is any more news/reviews.
  The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

--Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.