Melody Moore’s tour de force diva sparks the American premiere of Wainwright’s “Prima Donna”

February 20, 2012
By Marion Lignana Rosenberg

Melody Moore stars in Rufus Wainwright's "Prima Donna," presented Sunday in its U.S. premiere by New York City Opera. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Wayne Koestenbaum wrote in The Queen’s Throat that Maria Callas’s death at age 53 linked her to “themes that have shadowed gay culture: premature mortality, evanescence, solitude.”

Happily, the author’s vision of gay culture, first put forth more than twenty years ago, is now largely obsolete. But Callas the supposed victim and recluse endures, nowhere more so than in Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna, which received its U.S. premiere Sunday, presented by New York City Opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

A singer-songwriter with a cult following, Wainwright blurs the stylistic boundaries between pop and classical in his work, which includes seven studio albums (the latest due in May), a ballet score, and orchestral settings of Shakespeare sonnets. He has recorded Verdi and Bizet with David Byrne and bewildered clubbers by launching into Berlioz at the start of shows. Though his adenoidal baritone can grate, Wainwright’s idiosyncratic melodies—whether cheeky or rapturous—and sophisticated use of harmony make him a tunesmith of rare and arresting power.

In interviews, Wainwright has stated that Prima Donna was inspired in part by Callas: her televised conversations with Lord Harewood and a photograph widely believed to capture her at the end of her life, desolate and gazing out the window of her Paris apartment. (Though often presented as evidence of Callas as the queen of dysfunction, the picture is actually a posed shot taken for a fashion magazine some fifteen years before she died.)

Antony McDonald’s beautiful set imitates the ornate ironwork in that familiar image, and wondrous projections by William Reynolds bathe the elegant Parisian façade in rain and tears, liquid imagery heard in the watery shimmer of the orchestration and the uneasy dreams of the prima donna herself, Régine Saint Laurent. Her name is the first tipoff that the French-language libretto by Wainwright and Bernadette Colomine is grandly overdetermined. The bare and dusty interior of Régine’s flat with its settee-cum-sickbed would do nicely for Violetta’s death scene in La traviata. The final crisis—Régine’s shaken glimpse of Sophie, a younger rival for the tenor’s affection—includes nods to Madama Butterfly and Der Rosenkavalier.

These and other self-reflexive elements can make Prima Donna seem too clever by half, particularly given its characters’ wispy motivations. It is Bastille Day 1971: Régine, who last sang in public six years earlier—like Callas, who left the stage in 1965—plans a comeback in Aliénor d’Aquitaine, the work that marked her greatest triumph and also shattered her voice and heart. The arrival of a journalist, once an aspiring tenor, reawakens her dreams of love. She listens to a recording of Aliénor and is caught up in the passion and song of its love duet—though Aliénor’s suitor (the journalist in Régine’s reverie) presses her to “set aside [her] crown.” Régine breaks down, attended by her maid Marie and her dastardly, vampirish butler Philippe. The journalist returns as promised, mumbling (the line drew laughter) that he had forgotten a date with his fiancée Sophie. Régine wishes them well and vows to sing no more. Left alone, she watches the Bastille Day fireworks from her window.

Wainwright’s musical palette in Prima Donna is eclectic, recalling in particular the lush, claustrophobic sound world of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and the overripe convulsions of Barber’s Vanessa, another work centered on women shut away in prisons of memory and mourning. The title role, fittingly, is a tour de force, and it is impossible to imagine it better performed than it was by Melody Moore.

Moore’s sound is dark and passionate, whether soaring exultantly in the Aliénor duet, scaled down to a whimper in Régine’s account of her nightmares, or tossing off trills and vocalises in the extremes of her range as the diva prepares to don the motley again. As an actress, Moore shifted seamlessly among the lonely, fragile woman, the public Régine (“in character” even as she is interviewed), and the diva ablaze with art’s sacred fire.

Her final aria, Les feux d’artifice t’appellent (“The fireworks are calling you”), was the highlight of the opera—set over the soft, hypnotic drone of chirping winds and what sounded like electronic burbles, with fireworks (Reynolds’ magical projections) reflected on the façade of Régine’s building. It tells of the cruel price paid by the prima donna, who has seemed alive only when impersonating Aliénor and now looks on, remote and isolated, as Parisians make merry in the street below. Her final words are Ça n’a pas duré longtemps (“That didn’t last long”), a sentiment that might be shared by a Callas or any artist who has made great sacrifices for their craft. She hangs on and on to her last note as if she could somehow make her voice live forever, even as the woman Régine shuts herself away in the luxurious tomb of her home.

So commanding is the prima donna (both Régine and Moore) that the opera might be profitably recast as a monodrama—though one wouldn’t wish to slight the other fine singers in City Opera’s production. Kathryn Guthrie Demos made the most of Marie, Régine’s soubrette maid, a twit of a character who prattles on to no apparent end about differences in love in Paris and Picardie. Her bright voice sounded brittle at first, but she went on to dispatch with flair the octave leaps and stratospheric high notes demanded by Wainwright in her Act II aria, and she cut a sweet, winning figure on stage.

As the journalist André, Taylor Stanton rose magnificently to the vocal and interpretive challenges in the Aliénor duet, sung against a moonlit sky as the mirrored, mottled walls of Régine’s apartment fly away. (Here and throughout, Tim Albery’s direction and the lighting by Thomas C. Hase were inspired.) Randal Turner as the butler Philippe sounded underpowered in the lowest reaches of his role, but he made a splendidly prissy, blood-sucking villain, often singing over sinister chromatic runs and groans from the brass. (For reasons that the libretto leaves unclear, Philippe is a kind of Svengali who leeches off Régine’s glory and art.) Miranda Calderon as Sophie and Michelangelo Milano Jr. as Philippe’s assistant François were fine in their mute roles.

Jayce Ogren and the City Opera orchestra played Wainwright’s busy, bustling score with love and skill. For all the occasional clumsiness and lacunae in its text, Prima Donna is a beautiful and thought-provoking work sure to intrigue worshippers of operatic goddesses

Prima Donna repeats Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House.; 212-870-5600.

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