By Joseph K. So
Wainwright/Colomine: Prima Donna
Regine St. Laurent /Janis Kelly, soprano
Marie / Charlotte Ellett, soprano
Andre / Colin Ainsworth, tenor
Philippe / Gregory Dahl, baritone
Francois /Joe Bucci
Sophie /Miranda Calderon
Tim Albery, Stage Director
Robert Houssart, Conductor
Antony McDonald, Designer
Thomas Hase, Lighting
William Reynolds, Projection
The much anticipated North American premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s opera, Prima Donna, had its opening last evening at the Elgin Theatre in downtown Toronto. The glitterati were out in force and and there was the obligatory red carpet photo op in the beginning and a post-performance bash for the invited guests. This work has an interesting history. It was originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, but Wainwright and the Met parted company when the composer insisted it be sung in French while Met head honcho Peter Gelb wanted it in English. The work had its premiere in July 2009 at the Manchester International Festival in the UK with a subsequence performance in London. This run of four performances is the first time on this side of the pond. As a regular attendee at the opera, I have to say I recognized fewer people than usual in the audience last evening. I spotted COC General Director Alexander Neef and his wife Eloise, a (very) few opera die-hards, and of course fellow journalists. No, it was not your typical opera crowd dominated by a sea of grey hair – the audience was (mostly) young(er) and hip. They were probably attracted to the event more for Rufus Wainwright than any love of opera they might have.
The production comes from the Manchester International Festival. The sumptuous set, that of a drawing room in a Parisian apartment, is designed by Antony McDonald. The opening scene has the scrim down and the main character, Regine the opera diva, can be seen through the apartment window from the outside. This is reminiscent of a photo taken of Maria Callas in the 1970s gazing out of her window from her apartment at 32 Ave. Georges Mendel in Paris. Perhaps this was what Wainwright and director Tim Albery had in mind. The opera revolves around Regine Saint Laurent the opera diva who abruptly left the stage six years earlier, living in a Paris apartment. Andre Letourneur the journalist who also happens to be a tenor (!) persuades Regine to come out of retirement to sing Alienor d’Aquitaine, an opera written for her. She finds herself falling in love with Andre. Act One ends with a kiss and embrace. Act Two shows Regine vocalizing and preparing to return to the stage, realizing that she cannot go through with this as her confidence is gone. Andre reappears with his fiancée, Sophie – I wonder if Wainwright was thinking of Der Rosenkavalier at this point! (This little scene also recalls Act Three of Madama Butterfly) Regine is devastated. As Paris is celebrating Bastille Day, Regine hears the revelers on the streets and steps out to the window ledge as the house light goes out. Does she jump? It’s left to the audience’s imagination.
Opera as a genre is known for the twists and turns of the libretto, often to a fault. As an opera, Prima Donna does not really have enough of a dramatic skeleton on which to hang its action and its music. Why did Regine leave the stage in the first place? Did she lose her voice? Her confidence? No, it turned out that she was jilted by her tenor. For a worldly woman like Regine, this appears to be a rather flimsy reason for wanting to end a career! Why does Philippe the butler turn against her in Act Two, when Regine realizes she cannot go through with her comeback? The relationship of Regine and Philippe is not fully explained. Is he a former lover? Is he a sort of Svengali character in her life – shades of Sunset Boulevard? Actually I find the main characters in Prima Donna surprisingly under-developed. The music, and to a certain extent the drama, in Act One I find under-energized. Together with the stage direction, it takes on a sick room atmosphere – perhaps deliberately so. It sort of drifts along without sufficient dramatic development needed to give the piece propulsion. There is more action in Act Two, but again there are dramatic holes. Musically the piece demonstrates the prowess of Wainwright as a composer of melodies. There are quite a number of inspired tunes, something that doesn’t happen very often in contemporary opera. The problem is in the rest of the music, especially in the orchestration, which is often awkward, bumpy and jarring, the instruments often failing to blend. The orchestra under conductor Robert Houssart sounded rough and angular, perhaps more a result of the score than subpar playing or under-rehearsing. I think Wainwright’s intentions are good, but his technical execution of something as grand as an opera leaves something to be desired. The production itself is slick and sophisticated, with good lighting and projections. The one exception is the opening projection of some constantly falling objects – leaves? rain drops? – looking more like a technical glitch. Also the surtitles, instead of using projections, were shown on small video monitors. I was in the very last row of the orchestra and had trouble reading the text.
It is often lamented that contemporary operas aren’t very singable. I would say it is not true with Prima Donna. Yes, the vocal lines are often challenging, but the singers generally coped well. Scottish soprano Janis Kelly’s role as Regine is long and arduous, and there were moments when her voice turned strident or tremulous. She regrouped and sang an affecting final scene. Earlier on, a passage where she was required to trill unfortunately exposed the weakness in her voice, but overall it was an honorable performance. Tenor Colin Ainsworth sang the journalist Andre, a rather one dimensional character. Ainsworth has the the right vocal timbre for the French language and he generally sang well, only struggling when the tessitura rose too high. Baritone Gregory Dahl was impressive both vocally and dramatically as the butler Philippe, his outburst in Act Two a real scene-stealer. Too bad his character is also one-dimensional. Scottish coloratura Charlotte Ellett as the maid Marie showed off a secure top and generally nice tone. But perhaps it was opening night jitters, she suffered from a bad case of tremolo at the beginning of her aria that opened Act Two. She recovered to finish nicely, receiving the first spontaneous applause from the audience. Her diction was also the worst of the principals – anything remotely high, the words were lost.
Operatic history is full of cases where composers revise their original creations – it is often hard to say when the process of creativity of a particular piece ends. To my eyes and ears, Prima Donna remains a work in progress. There are some very lovely moments which will remain in memory, but the piece needs tightening and further development in the drama, and in particular a reworking of the orchestration if it’s going to withstand the test of time as an opera. At its present form, it is a pleasant piece of musical theatre, not opera. With revisions, it has the potential to be much more.