Cher Public

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]

  • LittleMasterMiles

    What a shame. One feels that Rufus could have created something really interesting if he had gotten out of his own reverential way.

    It seems to me, for what it’s worth, that this review would also apply quite well (barring some—not all—details of plot) to Thomas Adés unsuccessful Powder Her Face: talented performers portraying unbelievable characters in generic music to tell a pointless story. Tant pis.

  • maddalenadicoigny

    Mama put me on moderation which has curtailed m interest as of late but your piece was interesting as was the long extended one on Armida the other day.
    I am glad to have heard more than one sentence about this work.

  • whatever

    > one feels …

    that’s about the figure i’d have guessed, too.

  • Henry Holland

    Can we stop the fiction that Rufus Wainwright wrote this opera? What he did is provide tunes and quality control, there were “assistants” on hand to do fill in the harmonies, do the orchestrations etc. as he’s no more capable of writing an opera by himself than I am. At least when Nico Mulhy’s piece flops horribly in a few years, I’m pretty sure that he’ll have written and orchestrated everything.

  • rommie

    what are we looking for in new works, btw, and how do you think new works should be done to HOPEFULLY become rep mainstays?

  • PirateJenny

    Excellent review AJ. My only tiny wee quibble is that Rufus est fierement Quebecois et completement bilingue, so French isn’t really a second language. According to him, he tried writing it in English but just kept hearing it in French in his head. He felt very strongly that French was just a better language for the vocal lines and sentiment.

    Apparently (although this story sounds fishy to me -- I know I would have compromised my aesthetic principles at the drop of a hat) his insistence on doing it in French was why the opera wasn’t done at the Met as originally commissioned. That sounds like a bit of a dodgy cover story to me -- and based on the tepid reviews I suspect there were other reasons -- but there you go.

  • I never know where to file this idea that Wainwright is completement bilingue. Doubtless his French is better than mine but, I dunno, anyone ever hear his mostly charming recording of “Vainement”? At the beginning he is singing words that are not the actual text and are not, I think, French. I used to think his accent was bad, also, but then I realized he probably just does about the same thing in French as in English, i.e. singing like he’s just been to the dentist and his lips are flapping in the breeze.

    Sorry, I actually do have a certain liking for the guy. As mentioned above, Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk is a fine, I daresay riveting pop song.

  • Well done Armer- I think I got the better deal reading your review than seeing the “opera”.

  • Buster

    Interesting review -- thanks a lot. Both tonight and tomorrow sold out, I see.

  • Anyway, while I’m on about it, bilingual means lots of things, much as fluent does. Plenty of 1st generation Americans, say, are by any reasonable definition bilingual and fluent in the language of their parents, but would be ill-advised to write an opera libretto in that language. A good, comfortable, perhaps native grasp of language B, even taken with an interesting (if fallible…don’t make me quote The Worst Song Lyric Ever Written) poetic sense in language A doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to produce good art in language B.

  • PirateJenny

    Well, now I am in the uncomfortable position of defending the libretto, which I haven’t read and understand to be dreadful and inane. I think I should probably argue, then, that it would probably be equally dreadful and inane in English.

  • PirateJenny

    And actually, now that I have read about his shenanigans with “vainement” I am utterly astonished. What I originally wanted to convey was that anyone from Quebec should speak French, or at the very least know enough to not think that singing gibberish -- because you’re too lazy and narcissistic to bother looking up “vainement lyrics” on google and really work through the words and make them meaningful to yourself and your listeners -- is ok. To wit, I rescind and renounce my earlier position, and thank you for calling my attention to this matter.

  • Regina delle fate

    The Vicar will be thrilled to hear that the legendary Clare Rutter is starring as Lucrezia Borgia in English National Opera’s new production next season, opposite the very welcome US tenor, Michael Fabiano!

  • The Vicar of John Wakefield

    Rutter will be the best Lucrezia since Mary Plazas triumphed in the part at Buxton.

    Isn’t Ashley Catling or one of other our fine British tenors available for Gennaro?

  • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

    Hot news from the BBC: Laurie Anderson, that doyenne de bon gout Nouvelle Yorkaise, has just shown up on the late-evening Culture Show on their weekly 9-second slot to discuss her current arty must-dos. “Great piece of music” is her take on The Régine Tapes. Hey, if Laurie likes it, then it must carry weight. Right?

  • ilpenedelmiocor

    From the current issue of Details magazine (no, I don’t subscribe):

    “When [interviewer] Jonah Weiner met this month’s ‘Wiseguy,’ Rufus Wainwright, the musician wouldn’t stop talking. ‘He doesn’t have a switch to turn off the racconteur in him,” Weiner says. “I started feeling bad by the end — it was as if I had asked him for his ATM pin and he felt compelled to give it to me.”

  • Regina delle fate

    Well, Vicar -- Rutter will be the best Lucrezia in the UK since Plazas triumphed in the part at Buxton!

  • Blue Byrd

    OK Maury, I’ll bite -- what is The Worst Song Lyric Ever Written? No need to quote, a title will do. I take it you weren’t talking about MacArthur Park?