Rock opera is inarguably a disparaged form – too overblown for rock’n'roll, short on substance for the real musical stage. Blend rock and opera and you sire a mongrel that is neither fish nor fowl: the grit of the guitar is reduced to lush and multi-layered self-parody and the notions of the operatic vocal are crushed by the coarse croak of the male growl.
Which is why, I guess, Rufus Wainwright has avoided the usual tropes of popular music in his debut, full-length operatic creation. No pop, no folk, no cabaret – the broad features of his singer-songwriter output – rears its head in Prima Donna, premiered over the last week or so as part of the Manchester International Festival, a biennial jamboree in which the whole programme comprises new works and only new works.
When the Montreal-raised Wainwright, naturally Anglo-French bilingual with that background, contemplated his first piece of this kind, I doubt that the city of Manchester was anywhere near his mind. In fact, the New York Met was keen to bring the lofty and the lowly, the elite and the popular, together in a gesture that would have drawn, we can only assume, high, middle and, maybe even, low-brow audiences to its concert hall.
Yet – and this was a surprise – the Met appeared to require a work that was just too democratic for this outrageously talented and certainly self-confident young composer. When Wainwright revealed that his opera was to be in French, the grandees of Gotham said no. They wanted a work in English, a curious volte face considering that non-Anglo speak – German, Italian, Russian and to a lesser extent French – has been, historically, the lingua franca of the opera house.
So, New York’s loss was Manchester’s unexpected gain and, during the fortnight-long festival, a handful of performances of Prima Donna have been offered to large crowds at the Palace Theatre, with the well-established Leeds-based company Opera North steering this unheard and unseen piece through its birth pangs. The reviews have been frankly patchy – some excellent comments, more often dismissal – but I tried to block out the wider reception as I settled down the last show in the short run yesterday afternoon.
Three disclaimers to begin: I am a huge fan of Rufus Wainwright, particularly his solo work, and I admire his versatility, ambition and invention, from his extraordinary Judy Garland tribute to his Shakespeare sonnet collaboration with the American, Expressionist theatre director Robert Wilson; second, I am little acquainted with opera – I have perhaps half a dozen live shows under my belt maximum – so I can claim scant expertise; and third, I would generally avoid any such event which attempted the shotgun marriage of rock and opera.
Any good then? Well, yes, there is plenty of good in this self-reflexive tale of the titular opera singer who has been one of the greats of the vocal world but whose voice has been rendered impotent as a result of romantic catastrophe. Set, certainly, in the city of Paris and, approximately, in the present day, its soundtrack harks back much further.
Puccini and Bizet have been name-checked by the critics and not so positively; they see Wainwright’s homage as more borrowing than tribute. For me, Maurice Ravel came more to mind, which perhaps places Prima Donna a fraction apart from the realm of the accessible – over-accessible for the heavyweight reviewers, we might assume – scores of those other composers.
The music was not particularly characterful or memorable but the performances of a small core cast were: an imposing, assured central presence by Janis Kelly as the love-struck Regine Saint Laurent; a gamine turn by Rebecca Bottone as the coquette-ish maid who also sings, deliciously, the most captivating melody in ‘This is Paris not Picardie’; a leering and unnerving creation by Jonathan Summers as the singer’s domineering mentor, suggestive, in lime green suit, of Batman’s nemetic Joker; and the sprightly bellboy, a balletic cameo by Steve Kirkham, bringing to mind a younger, slimmer Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Always eye-catching, however, were the sets by designer Daniel Kramer: large in scale, impressive in their mobility, and particularly echoing the post-modern mood of the show. The cavernous apartment of the soprano is post-Versailles, Third Republic, but its massive picture window, over-looking an Impressionist snapshot of Sacre Coeur, is closer to Le Corbusier than Louis Quatorze. And, to add a contemporary touch, sliding rooms which come and go, in fact perspex cells, in which fragments of the back-story are briefly, silently and rather unsettlingly played out.
The costumes are colourful and sometimes cartoonish, the storyline is riddled with brash and melodramatic gesture, the lighting is inspired throughout and the medieval opera-within-the-opera, Aliénor d’Aquitaine, fleetingly visited in a stunning dream-like sequence, is probably the best sustained section of the whole two and three quarter hours.
Will Prima Donna have a life beyond Marx’s Manchester? Will Montreal and L’Opera in Paris, even Manhattan, eventually welcome this Gallic feast, well, substantial snack anyway? Wainwright probably has too much self-belief, is too big a pull, for this moderately successful experiment to be condemned to the back of a kitchen drawer.
The libretto, co-penned and just a little clunky, maybe needs re-visiting and the tunes may need re-colouring but this is an opera by any other name. A Verdi for the Third Millennium may not have emerged from the Romantic mist, even if Rufus thinks he has, but this son of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle has at least proved for sure that he is more than just a three-minute tunesmith.