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Prima Donna review

Laura Marsden loves a complete operatic experience, the highs, the lows, the sets: as Rufus Wainwright premieres in Manchester

Published on July 11th 2009.


Prima Donna review

Lord, are we lucky in Manchester? Yes, we are. Last night saw the world premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna opera, one of the most hotly anticipated events of Manchester International Festival (MIF).

It was superb, a proper spectacle; completely written by Wainwright himself, and featuring the Orchestra of Opera North. It made a glorious change from the usual fare the Palace has to offer and it felt glorious too. Oxford Street was closed to traffic because of all the utilities work and this meant even more focus on the red carpet and the glitz.

In the final sequence, she commands the stage. The Bastille Day celebrations are in full swing and the orchestra mimic the sound of the fireworks in a playful, almost childlike way. Régine is on the rooftops in her satin nightgown, surveying what was once her kingdom.

Originally, the opera was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but they baulked at the bi-lingual Wainwright’s insistence that the show be performed in French. Given that here in Manchester, we are famously way more cosmopolitan and open-minded like, that wasn’t a problem. Subtitles were displayed on screens and positioned discreetly to the side of the seats.

And it was gripping, beautiful, emotional stuff.

First a word about the set. The design, by Antony McDonald, is innovative in its versatility and lends real weight to the story. Flashbacks and dream sequences are dramatised in a colourfully camp way but they also provide gravitas and feeling. Apparently the sets took five days to prepare in the Palace: it was worth it. The lighting, by Peter Mumford is special too and conveys emotion on a personal level almost independently of the production.

Wainwright said recently in an interview that, “A lot of people have always complained with opera that it’s so stiff or wooden or the characters are so two dimensional. I always found it fascinating because therefore you can put your own dimension in. You become the third dimension. It’s not all spelled out.”

Daniel Kramer’s production has addressed this point and the whole sensory experience of the orchestra, the characters, the set and lighting provide a massive slab of enrichment for the soul. If watching crap TV has brutalised your sensibilities and depleted your humanity cells, now is the time to recharge with Prima Donna.

The opera is set on Bastille Day, Paris, 1970 and tells the story of Régine Saint Laurent (Janis Kelly), the world’s most acclaimed operatic soprano who has endured an unexplained six year hiatus from the stage. Early in Act 1, a touching relationship is established between Régine and her new maid Marie, played beautifully by Rebecca Bottone, as they confide their woes to one another. Marie’s tale of domestic violence is contrasted with Régine’s slightly more luxurious problem which culminates in a moving duet. The mood is ably enhanced and illustrated by that fabulous set.

We learn that at one time, Régine was the Queen of Paris but in her last role, as Aliénor d’Aquitaine, disaster struck on the opening night and she was left never to sing again. Themes of nostalgia, regret, heartbreak and sadness permeate as Régine’s emotions go up and down in true prima donna style.

In Act 2, we learn the reason behind her six year ‘lost weekend’. A possible romance seems to bloom as she rehearses arias from Aliénor with a seemingly infatuated but prestigious journalist, André Le Tourner, who’s had Régine on a pedestal since boyhood. Her confidence grows and it seems that she may well reprise her role as Aliénor. Looking fantastic in a black gown with diamante accessories, she is a true diva. But then, inexplicably, she begins to lose it again and then, the true reason for her loss of voice is revealed via flashback and a staggering performance from Kelly.

In the final sequence, she commands the stage. The Bastille Day celebrations are in full swing and the orchestra mimic the sound of the fireworks in a playful, almost childlike way. Régine is on the rooftops in her satin nightgown, surveying what was once her kingdom. What is her fate? Well, it’s not a tragedy. There is hope.

And hope for the potential audiences too. There are tickets left for the remaining shows and if you can, you should get down to the Palace and take it all in.

Prima Donna is another Festival triumph, up there with Kraftwerk and It Felt Like a Kiss. It’s also a personal triumph for Rufus Wainwright who’s apparently been besotted with opera since he was fourteen. Let’s hope he has more in him.

A final word. As with Monkey, the Chinese opera, sound-tracked by Damon Albarn, which headlined 2007’s MIF, this production moves on after Manchester, first to London and then back to Wainwright’s native Canada, and Toronto. We should feel smug we got it first. Balls to New York.

Prima Donna is at the Palace Theatre until 19 July, tickets from £12.50. More details at http://www.mif.co.uk/events/prima-donna/.

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11 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Ghuet HandJuly 11th 2009.

I think it was riveting, incredibly emotional too.

rjwJuly 11th 2009.

Went for the last show on Sunday with open eyes. Disappointed to say the least. Snoozeville at its worst (and I didn't even have a hangover). Poor plot, uninspired music, flat voices... Boooo! I will agree that the set was inspired but thats missing the point. Glad I hadn't read this review before going or I would have been doubly disappointed.

AndymJuly 11th 2009.

Yes, Wagner, it's on record - the Met wanted a bums on seats proper cross-over novelty, and did indeed shrink when they were offered something in French. That *was* the reason - though there was a falling out in that they also said they couldn't offer a window for the production for quite a few years and Wainwright wanted it on sooner. In part (a minor part) I do agree with Anonymous about the quality of the music (though please dig out Rufus's back catalogue Anonymous - you'll be doing yourself a treat, and he's become a superstar in the last 5 yrs - as he's possibly the planet's most talented songwriter - and anyone who wrote Dinner at Eight, Oh What a World, Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk etc has definitely earned his brownie-points. (Those at his small gig on Sunday with his mother also know his voice is still incredible). For me, the music in Prima Donna 'does the job'. What's surprising is that the man who can - if he can do nothing else - produce soaring majestic melodies - felt he couldn't give us a couple of memorable, tunely arias. Perhaps if it hadnt been for Janice Kelly being magnificent, a superb lighting/design, and staging at its best, this would not work. I've got to say I was luke-warm at the interval, but by heck it was a guilty pleasure by the end. It's a first opera; he got things wrong; he doesn't write for the tenor well enough (Rufus's own vocal range is astonishingly wide - it seemed he expected his tenor to meet him). But he has a good crack at it, and it's fun. Thematically, it's got more than enough going on. The treatment of sexuality is worth a think-through; the 'knowing take' on opera-cliche is light-touch enough to be entertaining; and the closing scene (no spoilers) is rivven with ambiguities.. As a first opera experience for others - perhaps not the greatest. It's sub-Puccini, but Puccini isn't 'all that great' at times. Perhaps you have to be in love with opera, know a fraction of Madame Butterfly or Tosca, and also still know what a frankly ridiculous art-form it can be, to get the most out of this production. This is the 4th Festival Production which has tackled a similar cultural agenda - couple Kraftwerk with Steve Reich; 'Trad Theatre' with Bingo; Elbow with the Halle; and now Rufus with opera. You do lose something but I really don't think we should be precious about 'cross-over art' ....

OrigenJuly 11th 2009.

Having seen everything from Wagner at Covent Garden to Handel at Buxton and most things in between, I can tell you that if you didn't enjoy this at least in part then opera isn't for you. Whislt acknowledging the caveats of Andym above, it was still a wonderful and in the end quite an affecting evening.

andymJuly 11th 2009.

..sorry about that - seemed to type a hell of a lot there. (note to ed.)

SarahJuly 11th 2009.

This was a truly disappointing experience. I had been so looking forward to the opening night of Prima Donna, the highlight was Rufus preening outside in top hat and a sliver topped cane. I was expecting a highly emotional experience, but the plot was flimsy, the acting wooden, and the music didn't move me at all. The best performance came from the maid - who I managed to empathise with, but apart from that it left me cold.

AnonymousJuly 11th 2009.

Hey, I'm going on Sunday and thanks for both perspectives. Anyone got two tickets for the accoustic set, please let me know.

GordoJuly 11th 2009.

What did Gordo tell you lot yesterday? The Dark Horse romps home a well deserved winner!

AnonymousJuly 11th 2009.

I totally disagree. The reviewer really sells it, captures what the director, cast and set designers tried their damnedest to convey, but the fact is that their was no drama in the music, the actual content was dull and drawn out. For me, it was a poor first introduction to the opera as an art form.Having read interviews with Rufus Wainwright this morning (i didn't really know about him before, apart from the documentary on BBC1 the other night - seemingly one of a few at the moment not fawning all over him) I now see why it was so dull - it was all about the man who seemingly cannot stop telling the world about himself! This really didn't draw me in and was the biggest let down of the festival so far. I had high hopes, went without prejudice and full of expectation ... and was left very deflated.

JamesJuly 11th 2009.

It was a great night last night. Go if you can. Fight for a ticket

Ms. BJuly 11th 2009.

What Rufus did was incredibly risky. Opera fans disdain it, Rufus fans don't know what to do with it. As part of the latter group, I had a hard time connecting with the performance, though it helps to read Rufus's comment about the creator as the third dimension of what seems two-dimensional at face value. Its the fusion of wholly Rufus and wholly opera which is hard to reconcile, and which is why his unorthodox endeavor is so commendable.And to those who criticize the music as 'bland' (ie. many solos, not emotionally super-charged): perhaps if you payed attention to the stuff of the plot, you'd understand why.

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