The Palace Theatre in central Manchester is usually home to the likes of Chicago, Les Mis and the Christmas pantos. Audiences know exactly what they’re going to get when they attend and usually go home happy. Those that attended the premier of Rufus Wainwright’s new opera Prima Donna on Friday evening weren’t quite sure what was going to unfold on the narrow Victorian stage and for the most part, they didn’t care. Although it has been advertised and marketed as a proper opera, the lobby buzz before the show indicated that nearly everyone except the journalists was there because it was Rufus.
One of the biggest challenges for a first time opera composer is pacing. If the drama unfolds too quickly, the opera becomes disjointed and busy; too slowly and it seems as if the plot is slogging its way through wet cement. Two hours is a long time, particularly for a pop composer who is used to turning out delightful amuses-bouches rather than the full Sunday roast.
In the first half, Wainwright fell victim to the novice tendency to view every detail as important. The aging diva Régine and her butler Phillipe spent most of their time recounting the backstory to their respective servants. This device works well in films but less so on stage and the skewed dialogue to action ratio slowed the momentum to a crawl. We go to the opera after all, not for a recitation of the plot but rather to hear how the characters feel about the things that happen to them.
The scene with the journalist was equally labourious. Although it was dealing with present tense events, there wasn’t enough action to justify all the dialogue and the music wasn’t charming enough to make up for it. The rather cheeky characterization of the journalist as glorified fanboi, falling over himself to spend time with his idol, caused several aisle-seated colleagues to scribble furiously in their notebooks.
Wainwright arrived at the bar for interval drinks dressed as Verdi in top hat and waistcoat with his Puccini-clad boyfriend Jorn Weisbrodt. Given that the Verdi costume required a full beard, it is unlikely to have been a spur-of-the-moment idea.
As soon as the curtain rose on the Second Act, it became obvious that any interval hand-wringing was in premature. Marie, Régine’s maid, comforted her employer with a folk-inspired lament about the perils of big-city love. ‘From Paris to Picardie’ was Wainwright at his best and Rebecca Bottone, perhaps relieved to finally get material in which to sink her teeth, delivered the goods with aplomb.
Throughout the opera, there was a nagging feeling of deja vu. Sunset Boulevard, Faust, Madame Butterfly, and Rosenkavalier were all there but labelling the work a pastiche is over-simplifying quite a lot.
Prima Donna’s greatest strength was the orchestration. While it was on occasion a bit fussy and unidiomatic, Wainwright’s grasp of colour and texture is astounding and the result was a joy to listen to. The sounds of muted fireworks in the final scene were an especially nice touch.
Given the composer’s day job and love of Romantic opera, the relative dearth of big tunes in the score is perplexing. The Picardie aria and Régine’s main theme are the only bits that remain in my head three days later.
The moral of the opera, as it were, is that the only thing lonelier than being at the top of your profession is being someone who’s limelight has gone out. In the dream sequence where Régine is reliving her last great triumph on stage, the curtain falls and she comes to the proscenium to receive her ovation. For a moment, we are confused, wondering if this is the actual end of the opera, so there is a pause. Régine carries on as if we are applauding wildly and, prompted by her behaviour, we do if only to cover the indignity of someone begging for approval.
The singing was generally good and the parts well cast although tenor William Joyner struggle quite a lot with a part that was far outside of his range. To be fair, the uncomfortable dancing over the full voice/falsetto fence was likely a product of Wainwright not quite realizing that what’s easy for him vocally is difficult for most other people.
Despite having only on location to work with, Régine’s Paris apartment, director Daniel Kramer and designer Antony McDonald created intricate and interesting sets. The pop-out lime green kitchen was exceptionally ingenious. Costumes were another strength.
Less notable was the playing of the Orchestra of Opera North. Considering their usual high standard, in places it was simply appalling. Singer were often overshadowed in the low register and it seemed as if wind and brass intonation had already started their summer holiday.
Overall, Prima Donna is worth seeing. It is tempting to write it off as the work of an enthusiastic amateur imitating his heroes but the music is too good for that. Writing new opera is difficult and while there are several things that don’t quite work, what’s more important is that the opera shows tremendous potential. At only 35, Wainwright has loads of time to give it another try and the box office drawing power to make it happen. Here’s hoping that he does.
Image of Prima Donna by Clive Barda here