The meandering swoon of Rufus Wainwright’s voice is instantly recognizable, but it’s the idiosyncratic handling of both music and lyrics in his songwriting that makes his work so distinctive. Which is one reason why his first attempt at full-blown opera is such a disappointment. “Prima Donna” has liquid vocal lines and rich orchestral textures, but too many of them sound borrowed. And, sad to relate, the most dramatic moment of opening night was the composer’s pre-show arrival dressed as Verdi.
In fact, Wainwright’s love of Italian opera notwithstanding, the flavor of his debut is profoundly French. It’s there in the Parisian setting of his pivotal day in the life of fictional diva Regine Saint Laurent (Janis Kelly). More crucially, it’s present in the language of his libretto (co-written with Bernardette Colomine), which became the official reason the Metropolitan Opera reneged on its commitment to produce the work.
Coming from a man whose last major outing was the recreation/reinvention of Judy Garland’s celebrated Carnegie Hall concert, it’s no surprise his story has more than a whiff of Garland’s cinematic finale, “I Could Go on Singing.” And, with its central dilemma about whether a star will resume her once-glittering career, Gloria Swanson’s (re)turn in “Sunset Boulevard” is very much there too, right down to the devoted butler who was once a good deal more to her.
In her barren apartment — made up, by designer Antony McDonald, to look not unlike Audrey Hepburn’s raided one in “Charade” — Regine is poised for a comeback, after a six-year silence, in her most famous role, Alienor, in an opera about medieval romance.
A journalist (William Joyner) appears, who is not only her biggest fan but a tenor. Together they sing the love duet from the opera in question, but at the last moment, Regine’s demons return and her voice disappears. However, love has blossomed. In the second-act flashback, she recalls the ill-fated premiere where her career stopped. But just as she overcomes her past, the journalist returns … unexpectedly, with a fiancee, Sophie (Kath Duggan), in tow. Cue exultant, regretful, high-lying trio — a complete conceptual steal from “Der Rosenkavalier” –followed by a scene of resigned resolution.
Unfortunately, that plot precis suggests far more action than actually exists in a show that merely wanders through situations and emotions. Director Daniel Kramer throws everything he can at the text, but it’s too inert for him to animate. Peter Mumford’s super-saturated lighting punches up and punctuates the lush, plush score, heralding and expressing dramatic mood shifts barely present in the undulating music.
With the exception of some John Adams-style repeated figures chugging through the final scenes, “Prima Donna” sounds as if composition stopped around 1930. The heady scent of Ravel — harp, feathery woodwind, lush strings — hangs over the orchestral textures. There are distinct echoes, too, of Poulenc. But what the show really sounds like is a lost opera by Massenet — and the camp medieval opera-within-the-opera has more than a little of the flavor of the latter’s faintly ludicrous “Esclarmonde.”
Kelly works something of a miracle in the title role. Her sureness of tone and dramatic tenacity are an object lesson in how self-belief — and self-control — can make a role work.
As the diva’s maid, a role not a million miles from the soprano-sung Oscar in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera,” Rebecca Bottone handles the coloratura with ease. As the journalist, Joyner has a tougher time, because Wainwright has failed to realize that although a pop singer can slide in and out of falsetto at the top of the tenor range, producing that sound operatically means changing vocal gears in an uncomfortable way.
The combination of Wainwright’s songwriting skills and his unapologetically old-fashioned tone allows for shaped moments of skill and tenderness that other contemporary composers can only dream of. But moments are not enough to build or sustain fully fledged music-drama. Wainwright’s name — and co-production deals — mean “Prima Donna” will have a life beyond its Manchester Intl. Festival run. But without the composer’s name, it might never have gotten beyond a workshop.