Review: Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna, Sadler’s Wells

“Come on Régine “

I’m not much of an opera-goer it must be said, but I have been a fan of Rufus Wainwright for a long time now and I have huge respect for people who fearlessly stretch their creative boundaries: names come to mind like Juliette Binoche taking on Akram Khan and dance in in-i, Damon Albarn’s own opera Monkey and even Graham Norton assuming the role of Zaza in La Cage aux Folles, these are artists willing to take risks in the face of harsh critics and a judgemental public, and I applaud them for following their creative instincts. To add to this list now is Rufus Wainwright, whose opera Prima Donna plays at Sadler’s Wells for four shows after its premiere in Manchester last year. It arrives in London though with a new director and a substantial redesign.

Prima Donna follows a day in the life of an opera singer, Régine Saint Laurent, who was the grande dame of Paris opera yet has not sung a note in six years after a crisis when performing Aliénor d’Aquitaine, a piece written for her especially. Sequestered away in a reclusive life with just a long-serving butler Philippe and a new maid Marie for company, she is struggling to face the demons that haunt her, yet a journalist André coming to interview awakens her desire to recapture her life on the stage.

The concept is more interesting than the execution to be honest, the idea of what an artist becomes once their talent has deserted them is hinted at but not mined in any great detail and the first half does begin to flag somewhat in the face of little action. The second act though is much livelier as it becomes a bit of a mystery and we are genuinely engaged in discovering what lies behind the diva’s pain. The staging reflects the fading grandeur of its star, her crumbling apartment peeling at the edges, paint fading, furniture battered and worn and it is beautifully lit throughout.

Musically, it carries a lot of different influences and is quite reminiscent of Wainwright’s ‘pop’ music in this respect. There are some beautiful moments, an early duet between Régine and Marie is exquisite (I would have personally liked to heard more group and less solo work, the climactic love duet from Aliénor is nicely dramatic and also wonderfully staged, I found it entirely captivating. Ironically, Prima Donna is at its strongest when at its simplest: Régine and André singing along to the piano; a haunting, spare number from Philippe about his long-held devotion to his mistress; even the final number is all the more effective for being tenderly gentle.

I found all the vocal performances to be good, Rebecca Bottone’s higher register was excellently deployed in her second act opener, Jonathan Summers gruffly humourous butler was nicely characterised and as the Prima Donna herself, Janis Kelly was superb, being an enchanting singer but also squeezing out every last drop of drama and emotion, especially when her voice failed her.

Sometimes though, there is just too much going on with the music, with little thematic consistency emerging from the evening, it can get a little bit wearing. And for me, I found the balance was sometimes questionable. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Robert Houssart, played extremely well, dealing with an often densely complex score but the orchestra was often the dominant sound in the mix at the expense of the vocal work, even sometimes with two singers and it really felt at times like Wainwright was more interested in the score rather than the vocal line. Matters are not much helped by a libretto which is hardly complex.

My evening was hugely enhanced by a chance conversation with the lady next to me, who turned out to be the repetiteur (the programme says Annette Saunders) and she won me over completely with her passion for opera in general and her explanations of several key points I quizzed her on (including a little backstage gossip!) and if she ever reads this, I like to thank her for her time and her suggestions. One of the key reasons I don’t see much opera is my lack of keen opera-going friends, I think I need to go with someone who is passionate and can carry me along with their enthusiasm, explaining the nuances and intricacies that escape my uneducated ear, so this encounter made this a special evening for me.

I suspect aficionados of opera will find this too much of a vanity project, not matching up to the works it is influenced by, and I can see why some would argue that the publicity and resources being made available could have been more fairly allocated to more established full-time upcoming opera writers, but I feel that that would be unfair to Rufus Wainwright’s efforts here, an engaging night out and one which will pull in an audience who might not otherwise have bothered with opera and could be inspired to discover more.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £4

2 thoughts on “Review: Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna, Sadler’s Wells

  1. Interesting review. I wasn't a fan to tell the truth, stylistically it's all over the place and even the basic story is not one worth telling really. But still, a good first effort at creating a new opera from someone outside the field, which is a hell of a lot more than what most critics have achieved.

  2. Wouldn't have got anywhere near an opera house were it not for his name. It's a smack in the teeth for 'upcoming opera writers' or composers as we call them who would rarely get these opportunities.

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