You’ve probably heard: Canadian folk-rocker and opera fan Rufus Wainwright wrote an opera. Prima Donna opened its third run in New York City Opera’s production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sunday (February 19). It’s better than I expected but still a mixed bag.
It’s the story of a reclusive semi-retired diva’s attempted comeback in the commissioned opera which, confusingly, was both her greatest triumph and her downfall, as she lost her voice during its single performance (which, however, was recorded). Régine Saint-Laurent is attended by a shy new chambermaid, Marie, and an overbearing butler, Philippe, determined to protect her from a worshipful young journalist, André, who also just happens to be a conservatory-trained tenor who arrives for their interview carrying the score, which he knows by heart. Music is sung, sparks fly, the diva collapses…and the first act curtain falls as they embrace. Act two resolves the diva’s indecision and delivers a dazzling coloratura aria for the maid, a fantasy scene with ravishing duet, a mad scene, several confrontations, and a denouement with a major debt to Der Rosenkavalier. Wainwright does know his operatic conventions, though writing the diva a mad scene without singing is problematic.
(The synopsis on BAM’s website contains more action than what we saw onstage, suggesting major cuts since earlier runs in the UK and Toronto)
There’s some lovely music, with beautiful, gauzily-orchestrated interludes reminiscent of Debussy, and an occasional energetic burst that recalls Janacek. When harmonies stray from the frequently saccharin tonality they can be quite interesting, and Wainwright clearly wrote with great care. Unfortunately, much of the vocal writing is drab, generic, and repetitive, which only serves to highlight the painful banality of the libretto (co-written by Wainwright and Bernadette Colomine), inexplicably decided written in French (the French and the English translation are equally turgid). Wainwright’s inexperience with writing for trained voices shows, as he mostly confines the singers to a few pitches in the lower middle part of their voices, where they slowly intone their texts, the better to understand the words (alas) (the tenor also gets lots of high passages). This works least well for the chambermaid, who is granted a single aria, a rangy folk-like reminiscence about life and love in Picardie, notable for the rhyming of tresses and fesses.
The rare joke only points out how terribly seriously the piece takes itself, and how monotonous most of the pacing is. Repetition is a big problem: each meaningful utterance is sung at least three times, and the critical but unmemorable duet and aria from the diva’s comback vehicle are drilled over and over. The story alternates between predictable cliches and whiplash improbabilities. Camp is forgivable if it delivers lyric thrills, but Wainwright hasn’t yet earned how to do that.
Wainwright deserves credit for undertaking the project, which qualifies as a true opera, if a not very good one. The luscious-voiced Melody Moore as Régine, Kathrine Guthrie Demos as Marie, Taylor Stayton (another talented AVA grad) as André, and Randal Turner as Philippe sing unamplified. Antony McDonald’s literal representation of the diva’s Paris apartment, with fly-up front and back walls, is handsome and serviceable, and his costumes are appropriate, especially the little black meet-the-press dress that evokes Callas in retirement. Thomas Hase’s lighting focuses the attention effectively.
During a normal City Opera season this would have been a fun deviation from more usual NYCO fare. But it’s not clear that this is a direction that will save the company. Slow ticket sales picked up when a donation enabled sale of all remaining seats for $25, though at this writing two of the three remaining performances (out of four) still have seats available. I wish Wainwright luck, but I wish NYCO even more luck.