In retrospect, it was inevitable that Rufus Wainwright would turn his hand to opera. After all, his work long ago graduated from winsome folk to fully blown baroque masterpieces such as Want One and Want Two. Also, given his wild ambition (such as recreating a Judy Garland concert at Carnegie Hall), Prima Donna always seemed the most logical next step for the Canadian-American.
Prima Donna‘s gestation comes complete with a back story worthy of the art form itself. It was originally intended for the New York Metropolitan, until they baulked at the idea of a libretto written entirely in French. Thus, New York’s loss is Manchester’s gain, as Wainwright’s opus is the main attraction for the city’s 2009 International Festival.
Prima Donna tells the story of a day in the life of an ageing opera singer, Régine Saint Laurent, preparing for a much vaunted comeback in the role that made her name. Through the course of the day, she confides in her maid, Marie, about her fears of performing again, and falls in love with a journalist, thus creating more stress for her butler and oldest friend Philippe, who’s dream is to see Régine back onstage again.
As should be expected of Wainwright, Prima Donna both looks and sounds sumptuous. The set designs are a marvel in themselves, with Régine’s luxury apartment being perfectly recreated on the stage of the Palace Theatre. The orchestration, performed by Leeds’ Opera North orchestra, is suitably stirring, imbuing Wainwright’s arias with real majesty.
Despite the New York Met’s misgivings, the language proves no barrier, even to Francophobes, due to the scattering of TV screens with subtitles around the theatre. While this does occasionally mean missing some of the action on stage, if your eyes are elsewhere trying to keep up with the libretto, the accessible nature of the opera means that nobody really gets lost.
It’s this accessibility that may prove Prima Donna‘s achilles heel though. Due to his pop background, Wainwright probably already has a fair degree of snobbishness to overcome (“Oh dear, it’s all terribly Andrew Lloyd Webber isn’t it?” sniffed one woman at the interval), but he should be applauded for attracting an audience who would never think twice of attending an opera usually. Indeed, one look at the audience – a healthy cross-section of gender, age and class, with a couple of drag queens thrown in – would indicate that Wainwright has already succeeded in opening up opera to a whole new range of people.
Given that this is, in effect, an opera about an opera, there’s a fair degree of metatextuality involved here. Generally, it works well, yet it also produces some clumsy moments with self-knowing lines such as “it’s like being an opera”. At times too, the mix of comedy and drama seems uneasy – the dramatic, pivotal, moment where Philippe snaps at Régine produces guffaws from the audience at the delivery of the line “I shall call the police”.
The cast though are universally excellent – Janis Kelly is incredibly convincing as the jaded, troubled Régine, suitably vulnerable in her scenes with Marie, yet capable of turning on the star diva quality when André the journalist comes to visit. Jonathan Summers strikes just the right balance between the menacing and the tragic as Philippe, although the loudest cheers at the end are reserved for Rebecca Bottone, who is simply stunning as Marie. Her aria at the start of Act 2 was a definite highlight of the performance.
Of course, there was one other crowd favourite at that curtain call – Wainwright himself, who appeared looking suitably flamboyant with full beard, top hat and silver-topped cane, soaking up the applause. While Prima Donna may never quite reach the heights that would propel Wainwright to give up his day job, it’s another impressive string to an already frighteningly talented bow.