Rufus Wainwright, Curtains Pulled

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Published July 21, 2009

Rebecca Bottone and Janis Kelley. All photos by Clive Barda

 

Sunday night, Rufus Wainwright’s debut opera, “Prima Donna” closed out its premiere run at the Manchester International Festival, playing to another long sold-out crowd at the Palace Theatre, silencing the cynicism of those who thought the novelty of opera going pop would die overnight. It was a striking success after the project’s shaky take off. Earlier this year, Wainwright was prepared for the worst. After commissioning Wainwright to write the opera, the Metropolitan passed on it. Twice.

With those early difficulties in mind, it was advisable for “Prima Donna” to have a discreet debut. The Manchester International Festival seemed perfect: the highly regarded but still relatively new biennial event successfully launched Damon Albarn’s “Monkey” opera only two years before. The Festival would provide “Prima Donna” healthy hype but “if it bombed, no one would notice,” Wainwright says.

 

Jonathan Summers and Steve Kirkham

 

As it turns out, everyone did notice. And why not? “Prima Donna” makes a splash. On opening night, I witnessed Rufus surprise other early arrivals by sashaying into the lobby of the Palace Theatre, vain as a peacock and decked out in full regalia. Dressed as Verdi, he swung into the delighted, typically posh greater Mancunian crowd, boyfriend Jorn Weisbrodt (costumed as Puccini) on his arm. He always was his own best publicist: what we were about to witness was yet another extension of Wainwright’s colorful persona.

“Prima Donna” immediately presents itself not so much as an opera as a meta-opera: the entire affair is “operatic” only in the most technical sense (it does include some arias), an irony it continually delivers with a knowing wink. When Régine St. Laurent (the diva-gone-to-seed played by soprano Janis Kelly) sings, “This is like being in an opera,” it’s one of the production’s most pointed moments. Set on Bastille Day in Paris in 1970, but utterly contemporary in spirit, “Prima Donna” is about building and crushing egos, with relevant parallels to our schadenfreude-crazed tabloid culture. Rufus seems to have based the histrionic Régine on doomed aria queen Maria Callas, but her modern mannerisms give her a more populist, lowbrow context-more than anyone, she calls to mind another desperate pugilist: Britney Spears. Régine is the most farcical of Rufus’ four core characters: the star of the show but also its default antagonist, her cagey and spoiled nature rendering her unsympathetic and especially entertaining to watch fall apart. As her flunkies—a maid/assistant, Marie (modeled after the “clever zani,” a common household stock character of commedia dell’arte), butler and confidante Francois (a leech who lives vicariously through Régine), and Francois (Philippe’s companion and a neurotic, significantly homosocial fop in the style of Niles and Frasier Crane)—excitedly plot to return the fallen star to her former glories, it’s hard to root for the flagrant narcissist. (WILLIAM JOYNER AND JANIS KELLY)

Instead, we watch hawkishly, waiting for the inevitable brick wall to hit. As Wainwright would have it, media involvement provides the perfect catalyst for restored glory: a lovesick journalist named André Le Tourne unwittingly conducts a cathartic interview with Régine. It transforms her: she exorcises emotional demons surrounding a fateful eve that ruined her livelihood, six years before; then, with Le Tourne’s encouragement, she again dares to dream. “Everyone loves a comeback,” the cast reminds us through song.

Such lines are comedic as arias because they are so damn ordinary. Non sequiturs abound, too: no one really listens to anyone; dialogue, even sung, rarely connects. And every sentiment, from mundane references to housework to calling for the police, is sung ostentatiously in French, which initially led the Met to claim it wasn’t “an American work.” The sense of nonsensical detachment also permeates Anthony McDonald’s set designs. In the traditionalist productions of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella,” his work was, well, more tradition—here, his designs are alien and surreal: the lime green kitchenette that suspends in mid-air in Act II makes for stunning retro kitsch; the ornate walls that spin theatrically during Régine’s demise in Act II’s climax are straight from Lewis Carroll.

But in the end, it’s a tragedy-a chance for victory sidetracked by misbegotten love, stage fright, and internal sabotage. Everyone is a user, Régine realizes, which is the point Rufus seems adamant to make. No one can be trusted. No one, that is, except for lovely Marie (played charmingly by Rebecca Bottone), it turns out, who patiently endures Régine’s unsympathetic demise throughout the second act and quietly steals the show from her. Thus, a true star was born.