The return of the comeback

regine_st_laurentIt’s safe to say that there has been a lot of talk about Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna, which received its London premiere this week.

Much of the speculation has centred on the composer’s intentions and motivations; is this an act of arrogance, of self-publicity, of hubris?  Opinions will be, and maybe already have been, formed one way or the other.  A viewing of tonight’s performance at Sadler’s Wells, however, makes it very clear that this is the work of someone who reveres and respects opera as a form. This is not someone who believes himself superior to the great operatic composers, more someone who is prostrating himself before them.

In many ways, it’s that reverence which is the chief failing of  Prima Donna, musically speaking. Wainwright the singer-songwriter works best when he is at his most confident and idiosyncratic. There’s a cheek and a daring to his best songs which never comes close to surfacing in this score. It’s desperately tasteful and well behaved, almost as if he were denying himself any opportunity to cut loose in case someone were to tell him off. As has been mentioned in previous reviews, the score wears its influences unabashedly, to the extent that what we mainly get is pastiche.

There’s a bit of Massenet… this bit shows that he knows his Suor Angelica… a dash of Rosenkavelier… but never in a way which coheres as music-drama. Most worryingly, the opera-within-an-opera, the “great work” which represents both our protagonist’s greatest triumph and her Waterloo (apparently in the space of only two performances- take that, Renee!

) is couched in exactly the same musical language as the rest of the work. Listening to a record, without benefit of score, libretto or costume, there would be no way of telling that we had passed from one to the other, or back again.

The score, though, is not without its pleasures. Oddly for someone whose career is based on solo work, Wainwright is much more interesting in his ensemble writing than in his music for a single voice. If we discount the excerpt from the fictional Alienor d’Aquitaine mentioned above, a duet for soprano and tenor which seriously outstays its welcome, there are a couple of trios which are confidently executed, and very welcome respite from the mixture of parlando and arioso which makes up the vast majority of the work.

There are also two bona fide arias- one for Marie, the heroine’s maid, which is the musical highlight of the evening, and one for Regine St Laurent herself which serves as finale, and of which more later. But nothing ever catches fire musically, nothing ever, to be brutal, excites. And so strong was the sense of a diligent student of composition at his exercise that my companion of the evening said to me at the interval “Ok, I’ve never seen an opera before, but would I be right in thinking that this music is quite unsophisticated?” Save several moments of unexpected and polished orchestration, it is.

The libretto, alas, is even more so. Whatever possessed such a sharp and acerbic lyricist as Wainwright to write his opera in a second language? And whatever possessed him to choose as his collaborator Bernadette Colomine, whose biog tells us that she “adapts songs and dialogue into French for movie dubbing” and, er, nothing else? The poor singers expressed themselves in banalities all night. Regine, facing a crisis of artistic and personal confidence which is to end her career, expresses this only by saying “C’est impossible” several times. Yes, we know she can’t do it, but we never get a hint as to why. The maid, in her gorgeous little aria at the beginning of the second half, pointlessly tells us that rural Picardy, where she grew up, and Paris are very different. So different, indeed, that each stanza ends ‘Paris n’est pas comme la Picardie’. You may be thinking that represents a charming childlike expression of innocence. Trust me, in context it doesn’t.

I’ve heard that sometimes opera singers talk about the plots of the operas they appear in as being “silly”. Sadly, that’s the only word for the argomento of Prima Donna. In the first half, nothing happens. We meet a semi-retired diva, we find out that she is planning a comeback, we find out that she’s nervous about it, she meets a journalist, sings a bit for the first time in six years, collapses, and as a curtain kisses the journo. These “events” transpire  because the plot needs them to and for no other reason, and we gain no insight into any of the characters for them having happened.

In the second act, waiting for the journalist to return for an interview-cum-date, she plays a record of her greatest ever role, Alienor. This is a role she is supposed to have sung one and a bit times — once, at its premiere, immortalized on the recording which proves her the greatest, and then the infamous second performance in which she broke down, never to sing again.

She decides that it’s far too difficult for her to sing- even though in terms of tessitura and fioritura it’s about as tricky as Maria Von Trapp —  at which point her butler tells her that he’s always hated her and walks out. Then the journalist arrives to say that, oh dear, he’d forgotten that he was supposed to be seeing his fiancée tonight and she’s here and would Regine like to meet her? Nobody is, at this point, behaving like a human being. I would love to hear the offstage conversation between the journalist and the fiancée “Yes, I was supposed to be going to interview her at 8 tonight. Tell you what, I won’t phone, I’ll pop round there to say I can’t go there. You should come — I could introduce you to her for no reason”.

The fiancée, needless to say, is called Sophie, and another one of the missteps is that she is a non-speaking, non-singing role. The poor actor just stood there for a good ten minutes, wordlessly watching an opera singer her fiancé had met for the first time earlier that day sing about men and betrayal and how only women understand love.

I’m tired of enunciating the failings. It’s that awful critical cliché — I really wanted to like it; but in the last analysis it’s a long way from good enough. It ends prettily, although it’s no accident that the final aria is also on Wainwright’s latest album. Janis Kelly sang it beautifully, but for the only time that evening we heard the composer’s own voice in his composition, and one couldn’t help mentally replacing Kelly’s vocalizing with Wainwright’s imperfect, whiny, but oddly compelling timbre. Kelly didn’t put much of a foot wrong all night — she’s a lovely singer and a riveting actress, even when playing someone it’s impossible to care about one way or the other. Rebecca Bottone, as Marie, is one to watch. Zdenka, please, soon. And the tenor Colin Ainsworth sang expressively and beautifully in the toughest and least rewarding part of all, the baffling journalist.

So, no, not one of the great nights at the opera. I can’t help thinking that, to pick one example, the setting of the four words “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” on Wainwright’s album Poses manages to create more of a verbal and musical atmosphere than the 150 minutes of Prima Donna. But nonetheless, I’m glad to have seen it. I’m glad it was written. I’m glad that someone as undeniably talented as Wainwright loved opera enough to want to dare to write one of his own. It’s not quite an heroic failure, but it would be churlish indeed to say that it isn’t an honourable one.

[Photo: Robert Workman]