Manchester International Festival: Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna

Music Features Rufus Wainwright

There’s always been hints of the operatic in the music of Rufus Wainwright—the emotive crooning, the vocal gymnastics on his most epic tunes and, of course, the penchant for the melodramatic. But tonight marked his debut as an actual opera composer at the world premiere of Prima Donna—part of the Manchester International Festival.

Now, my qualifications for reviewing an opera couldn’t be any more suspect. I’ve long been a fan of Wainwright, but I’d never actually been to the opera before tonight. So my initial reaction to hearing so much emotion poured into mundane lines like “Would you like some breakfast or a cup of tea,” could probably have been more patient. Still, any qualms I had quickly vanished thanks to a lovely set design, powerful singing and intriguing characters.

The story follows Parisian opera star Régine Saint Laurant (Janis Kelly) as she prepares to sing publicly after a six-year absence. The dilapidated grandeur of her spacious apartment hints at a lonely exile, but her triumphant return is hindered by an unexplained paralyzing fear. The opera she must sing is the same one she last performed, the tale of Aliénor of Aquitaine, Queen of both France and England. It was Régine’s best performance by all accounts, but her voice gives every time she tries to sing the line, “Am I drunk with joy or sadness?”

She’s visited by a journalist who also happens to be a bit of an obsessive fan. He begs her to sing, telling her that her music has shaped his life. Her butler pushes her to fulfill her contract in hopes of recapturing the former glory of the household. Only her caring housekeeper Marie (Rebecca Bottone) seems to have her best interest at heart. Régine is kind to her staff, but also self-absorbed, cutting off Marie’s tale of woe to return the subject to her own. But it’s not until the second act that the reason for Régine’s heartbreak is made clear, making it difficult to care too deeply about her struggle. It’s also in the second act that Wainwright’s humor shines. In a flashback, we see that previous performance and the way Regine breathes in our applause like a drowning woman gasping for air. We clap not realizing at first that we’re playing the role of the fictional audience in the opera-within-an-opera in one of the show’s more clever turns.

The music was moving throughout—especially in the second act when Wainwright let the orchestra loose—and some of the wordless scenes were the strongest with a superb use of light and sound. Both of the women principles outshone their male counterparts. Overall, it was a charming and enjoyable, if not exceptional, work of art, and it was endearing to see a bearded Wainwright roaming the theater halls in top hat and cane. There was much of his persona evident throughout Prima Donna, and that was ultimately the opera’s greatest strength.

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