Luminato Festival: North American Premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna

Rufus Wainwright
Prima Donna – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Rufus Wainwright & Bernadette Colomine [sung in French with English surtitles]

Régine Saint Laurent – Janis Kelly
Marie – Charlotte Ellett
André Letourneur – Colin Ainsworth
Philippe – Gregory Dahl
François – Joe Bucci
Sophie – Maranda Calderon

Members of Canadian Opera Company
Robert Houssart

Tim Albery – Director
Antony McDonald – Designer
Thomas Hase – Lighting designer
Jo Paton – Producer

Reviewed by: Gail Wein

Reviewed: 14 June, 2010
Venue: Elgin Theater, Toronto, Canada

To say that pop-star Rufus Wainwright’s opera, “Prima Donna”, is trite and predictable doesn’t really distinguish it from most other operas. Straightforward stories with elements of romance and deceit have been standard fare for the past three centuries. But Wainwright’s opera, with a libretto co-written by him and Bernadette Colomine, is more hackneyed and shallow than most.

The story revolves around Régine Saint Laurent, a has-been diva who’s aiming to revive her career after years away from the limelight. When a reporter comes to interview her on the eve of her comeback, it turns out that he’s not only an opera fan, he’s a Régine fan and the two connect romantically in a duet from her fictional star vehicle.

The lead voices in “Prima Donna” were strong: Janis Kelly gave Régine an appropriately anxious spin with her intense performance, though her vibrato threatened to shake out of control during the climactic moments of the opera. Colin Ainsworth’s silky tenor drew one into his role as the reporter and seducer, and together the two were exceptional. Charlotte Ellett as Marie, Madame Saint Laurent’s maid, was sometimes overpowered by the orchestra and by the other voices, but her moment in the spotlight in the aria ‘Paris is not Picardie’ was well-received by the audience.

Wainwright’s music is a caricature of itself, with beautiful tunes that recall nineteenth-century melodies, and inoffensively tonal harmonies; from time to time reminiscent of Philip Glass’s arpeggio-style accompaniment. Not that there’s so much wrong with that; it would not have been surprising to hear some in the audience humming a tune from the opera on the way out of the hall.

Speaking of the hall, it was chock-full of the youngest and trendiest opera-goers seen anywhere in decades. And it was clear why they were there: the moderate applause at the end of the opera broke into a roar when Wainwright stepped onto the stage for his bow. It’s just fine that Rufus Wainwright doesn’t break any new ground with “Prima Donna”. But it would have been interesting to hear more of the composer’s singer-songwriter wit and creativity infused into this first classical effort.

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