Cult pop idol Rufus Wainwright places memorable melodies to the fore in an accomplished first opera

June 16, 2010
By Wynne Delacoma

Rufus Wainwright certainly doesn’t lack for courage.

A native of Montreal and a major name in the indie pop world, the singer-songwriter has recently ventured into the realm of opera. Wainwright’s debut opera Prima Donna, first seen at the Manchester International Festival last year, had its North American premiere June 14 in Toronto. Running through June 19 as part of Toronto’s multi-arts Luminato Festival, it is an intriguing first effort by an artist with a rare gift for melody.

The son of the high-profile folk singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, the 36-year-old scion has a distinguished musical pedigree. Music was a constant in his mother’s family, and his mother, who died in January at age 63, recorded often with her siblings. Wainwright has a great fondness for opera, and his newest album is titled All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. Something of a song cycle, its inspiration is the fatally seductive heroine created by German playwright Frank Wedekind who inspired a memorable 1929 silent film as well as Berg’s opera.

With a libretto by Wainwright and Bernadette Colomine, Prima Donna is an oft-told tale. Set in Paris on Bastille Day 1970 and sung in French, it is the story of Regine Saint Laurent, an aging but still-admired opera singer. She is considering a comeback in her most famous role, Eleanor of Aquitaine, but fears that her voice will fail her. There are elements of Sunset Boulevard in the opera. Regine’s apartment, a handsome amalgam of rugged stone façade and gilded interior by designer Antony McDonald and lighting designer Thomas Hase, glows with faded grandeur. A manipulative butler oversees the household, and a journalist arrives to report the soprano’s story.

But the opera includes a moving dream sequence, and its final scenes are satisfyingly ambiguous. Even the best-loved operas are monuments to clichéd plots – “Unhappy heroine dies for love’’ pretty well sums up most of them. But Wainwright and Colomine have stripped a familiar story to its essence, leaving a tightly paced glimpse of the struggle between human frailty and resilience

Wainwright’s score is long on traditional harmonies and short on dissonance. But it goes far beyond the stand-alone Big Moments and lush, movie-music orchestration that opera fans might except from an acclaimed pop composer. Musical lines are long and inventive, often full of treacherous leaps and plunges. The transitions from solos or duets to recitative are deftly shaded. There are some memorable melodies, including a melting love duet for Regine as Eleanor and the journalist as her handsome consort. But Wainwright knows when to wallow in a good tune and when to soften its contours in service to a larger musical construct.

Scottish soprano Janis Kelly, who created the role of Regine in Manchester and repeated it two months ago at London’s Sadler’s Wells, brought depth to what could have been a stereotypically needy female. As the butler, baritone Gregory Dahl sang with warmth and authority, but his character’s motivation was intriguingly murky. Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth was especially stirring in the dream sequence as Eleanor’s lover, and Welsh soprano Charlotte Ellett was touching as a young, newly hired maid who instinctively understands Regine’s pain.

The 40-piece orchestra, conducted by Robert Houssart, often sounded wan, thanks in part to the dry acoustics of the Elgin Theatre, an ornate, visually splendid movie house in downtown Toronto. But the orchestra, with Bryan Senti listed as orchestration assistant, helped propel the drama. Melancholy cellos and limpid woodwinds added subtle psychological color.

Prima Donna has had a difficult life. The Metropolitan Opera planned to produce it but dropped out; their publicly stated reason was Wainwright’s insistence on a French libretto. Toronto’s four-year-old Luminato Festival then came onboard as co-producer with the Manchester Festival and Sadler’s Wells. But according to Luminato officials, the 2009 Manchester production was too large for the Elgin Theatre. The original director, Daniel Kramer, bowed out, and British director Tim Albery created a new production for Sadler’s Wells and Luminato.

Third time may indeed be the charm.

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