Rufus Wainwright’s Opera: Prima Donna

Photo Carol Rosegg

New York City Opera’s second production of their 2012 season seemed to be perfectly in line with the company’s mission. Written by the folk/pop star Rufus Wainwright, Prima Donna satisfied the modern opera requirement and promised to attract first-time-opera goers familiar with his music. But is fulfilling requirements enough?

What is Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna? Is it camp? Is it tragedy? Is it comedy? Is it unintentionally all of these things?

On the surface, it is the operatic version of Sunset Boulevard. Soprano Régine Saint-Laurent is planning her comeback after six years of silence, reclusion, and festering mental instability. Her only companions are her effeminate butler, Philippe, who houses his own ambitions and resentments and the compassionate maid Marie. A tenor-turned-journalist arrives at Saint-Laurent’s decaying department – Norma Desmond meets Ms. Havisham – to interview, idolize, and exploit her. It is in no way a story of groundbreaking creativity – modern audiences no longer fetishize and sympathize with the fallen artist. The only way to make this story believable is to treat it as overwrought camp.

Photo Carol RoseggWainwright seems to be leaning in that direction with his melodramatic Mahlerian orchestration, languid, self-pitying melodies à la Poulenc, and one-dimensional characters, but any suggestions of intentional humor are glossed over by monochromatic gloom. The work’s real saboteur is the terrible libretto. Act I has promise. Philippe and André come across as two bitter opera queens who feed Saint-Laurent’s delusions with their fanatical devotion. André’s inevitable betrayal of Saint-Laurent, and the soprano’s resulting breakdown, would have been much more powerful if he had been just another treasonous fan. But, no. Before the end of Act I, André returns to Saint-Laurent’s apartment, and they kiss. He becomes the object of her affection, and she the object of his ambition. Predictable and tired, but not unforgivable.

In Act II, Saint-Laurent relives her final performance: the world premiere of Aliénor d’Aquitaine. In her dream sequence, she singes the climactic, ephemeral love duet with André fulfilling the role of Aliénor’s fiancé, Henri. This is the most extraordinary and interesting music in the score with Wainwright blending the simplicity of his folk music heritage with the transfiguring ecstasy of Tristan und Isolde. After this glimpse of craftmanship, things rapidly degrade. André’s betrayal is revealed sloppily. When he returns to resume his interview with Saint-Laurent, Marie, the maid notices a woman behind him in the hallway. “I completely forgot that I was going out with my fiancée!” This line began a ridiculous sequence of “wrapping things up” that triggered giggles and guffaws of disbelief from the audience. Saint-Laurent agrees to André’s last request to sign his recording of Aliénor d’Aquitaine saying that it is the last record she will sign. No, wait. She takes her record of the opera, signs it, and gives it to her loyal maid, Marie. “This is the last record I will sign!” More laughter and Saint-Laurent’s subsequent lines were drowned out by the deafening sound of eyes rolling.

Photo Carol RoseggThe woeful state of the libretto is even more depressing when you consider the excellent performances. Melody Moore dove into the role of Régine Saint-Laurent with abandon, imbuing the one-dimensional character with fragility, humanity, and histrionics. While her voice is not large, it is perpetually entrancing: full and even but soaked in color, crowned with a tantalizing edge on top. As her maid Marie, Kathryn Guthrie Demos was frequently lost in the lower regions of the role (which is mainly Wainwright’s fault for having a high soprano sing in her middle voice over thick orchestration), but excelled in her coloratura-drenched folk song “Paris n’est pas Picardie” at the beginning of Act II. Like Moore, Demos brought the humanity of Marie’s gentle character to the foreground. The moment in the final scene when Saint-Laurent recognize Marie’s faithfulness would have been heart-breaking if not for the laughable text and situation.

As the the butler Philippe, baritone Randal Turner sang with acidic incisiveness, biting sarcasm, and frightening rage that was always exciting even if it did stretch the limits of his lyric baritone. Tenor Taylor Stayton, who has the perfect voice for the high bel canto roles, soared in André’s highest phrases but also suffered from too frequent writing in his naturally weaker lower-middle voice.

After a La Traviata that flatlined with yawn-worthy performances, it is a shame that performers of this level of competence and excitement were wasted on a work as flawed and unoriginal as Wainwright’s Prima Donna. Hopefully, the third time really is a charm and City Opera will finally get it right with Christopher Alden’s new Così fan tutte this March.

Photos: Carol Rosegg