Such is the extent of Rufus Wainwright‘s reputation that I suspect most people will have decided whether or not to see his new opera (which premiered in Manchester last year) before they have even laid eyes on this review. But if this so, I can only hope that the decision you have already reached is to make the trip to Sadler’s Wells this week. This is because, speaking as one who has never had strong feelings either way about Wainwright, the evening made for one of the most unexpected operatic surprises of my life.
Sung in French, with English surtitles, Prima Donna focuses on a day in the life of Régine Saint Laurent, a renowned soprano who has not performed for six years, and is now contemplating a comeback. Thematically, it has parallels with Elektra in that it focuses intensely on one female figure throughout. The major difference, however, is that whilst Elektra frequently manipulates people and events to achieve the outcome that she desires, in Prima Donna Régine primarily reflects upon her place in the world, and considers whether all of her successes have really benefitted her at all.
Musically, this is most definitely an opera as opposed to a rock musical or operetta, and if it frequently feels derivative of Puccini and Verdi, amongst others, what does that matter? There is no shame in Wainwright showing that he embraced such composers as a child, or in demonstrating that he has done his homework by understanding what made their writing work so well. From the opening chords, through to the tantalising harmony singing of Régine and her maid, and the diva’s final farewell to the world, there are lyrical arias and emotive contemplations to be discovered in abundance.
Janis Kelly is an electrifying Régine. Mature voiced, soulful and full of heart-wrenching sorrow, there is a Madama Butterfly quality to her performance as she goes to her (metaphorical) death with sadness, despair, but, above all, dignity. Rebecca Bottone’s maid, Marie, produces a clean, striking sound, whilst Jonathan Summers’ butler, Philippe, is intriguingly firm and stern voiced. He feels vaguely reminiscent of Siegfried’s Mime as he sends Régine on a guilt trip for having supported her for all these years. Colin Ainsworth is also on top form as the journalist, André, demonstrating a voice that is certainly worthy of an Almaviva or an Albert Herring, two roles that he has played in the past.
The music is, however, better suited to plunging the audience into a series of powerful, often reflective, moments than it is at progressing the drama as a whole. As a result, we are left wondering whether a day in the life of a former prima donna is the strongest of subject matters for an entire opera. The answer is that it could be, but the fact that we ever find ourselves imagining otherwise is a failure of the music to keep the drama going apace.
Nevertheless, in the face of some beautiful arias, powerful performances and wondrous singing, this remains a minor quibble. The only people who may not be converted by this opera are the outright Wainwright haters, and that’s mainly because they won’t be giving themselves the chance to by staying at home. That group aside, anyone else is likely to be, at the very least, pleasantly surprised, if not, as I was, entirely bowled over by the experience.