April 14, 2010 / 3:17 PM / 8 years ago

Wainwright opera explores domain of the diva

LONDON (Reuters) - Opera is the new rock ‘n’ roll, intoned a program note for the London premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s ground-breaking musical drama, “Prima Donna.”

Enjoying a short run at Sadler’s Wells theater this week, his marathon composition combined the buzz of a rock concert and the glamour of a classical event.

However, this was no rock opera in the manner of Pete Townshend’s “Tommy” or Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust.”

The multi-talented Mr. W. has applied himself diligently to creating a work using many of the elements of classical opera.

It seems natural that an avowed opera fan, whose own persona as a pop performer verges on the operatic, should have a crack at one of the most difficult genres in the classical repertoire.

The ambitious work tells the story of Regine Saint Laurent, an opera diva contemplating a career comeback after six years away from the stage, which she fled after her voice failed during the most important performance of her life.

Set in her grand but decaying Paris apartment during Bastille Day 1970, the opera follows her struggle with the demons that led to her very public breakdown.

Outside, France is still in the grip of social upheaval unleashed by the 1968 students riots. Inside, a Pandora’s box of emotions is ripped open.

Her loyal manservant turns out to be motivated as much by hate as by love and the young journalist who comes to interview her becomes an object of erotic fantasy.

Regine herself demonstrates the qualities of the archetypal diva: she is self-centered, childish and high-maintenance.

The only sympathetic character is her young maid, who tries to provide some emotional support for her fragile employer, only to be shown the door herself at the end.


Sung in French, “Prima Donna” was originally due to have premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but Wainwright declined the opportunity, saying he had had no wish to comply with the company’s insistence on an English-language performance.

It had its world premiere at Manchester International Festival last year and will make its North American debut at Toronto’s Luminato arts festival in June.

A simultaneous English translation displayed on large screens either side of the stage provided a neat solution to the language barrier for the London audience.

For those who are looking, there are discreet hints of Wainwright’s own life experiences: cynicism about the press, a fall from grace, the desire to recreate the successes of the past. There is even the briefest reference to his Quebec upbringing.

The music and orchestration were by Wainwright himself and he collaborated with French-born lyricist Bernadette Colomine on the libretto.

The set, designed by Antony McDonald, and superb lighting by Thomas Hase created the claustrophobic conditions for the high-octane emotional drama to unfold.

The production was dedicated to his mother, the Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died in January. Wainwright has said he wrote much of it while he spent time with her during her long illness.

Beautifully orchestrated and with some stunning vocal performances by its small cast - especially Scottish soprano Janis Kelly in the lead role — the work has divided critics.

Is it a composition of imagination and originality by a unique musical talent, or merely an overblown pastiche of a well-worn musical form, a victory of style over substance?

The dedicated Rufus fan can see traces of his characteristic vocal style in some of the music, but as one audience member nearby asked, where are the tunes?

Rock ‘n’ roll it ain’t.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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