If you’re an opera buff, there are a lot of unkind things you might say about Prima Donna, pop singer Rufus Wainwright’s debut as opera composer. It has Der Rosenkavalier’s dull stretches without its intelligence or emotional depth; it has Puccini’s vulgarity without his soaring highs; it has the cliches of a creaky Verdi melodrama without the tunefulness. Is it unfair to compare Wainwright’s genre exploration to the form’s greatest masterworks? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Indeed, one might argue that in directly referencing his predecessors both musically and textually, Wainwright is kinda asking for it.
But now that these mean things have been said, let’s talk seriously about Prima Donna and what it means, and how it fits into the operatic tradition. Because there are a lot of things about it that are interesting. It’s at heart a revivalist work, meaning it makes a serious attempt to replicate both the musical language and the emotional language of a specific moment in the past, namely the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And revivalist works always raise the following question: how will this work be meaningful to modern audiences while immersing itself in the language of the past? How will it take account of the century of social and cultural change that stands between us and the tradition it invokes?
Some artists deal with this problem with nostalgia, showing us a fantasy past where our values are reflected back at us (see: all those proto-feminist heroines in historical fiction). Some use irony. Some use it as a mechanism to examine today’s world, in much the same way as science fiction. Some take the postmodern route, reconfiguring the old material in a way that exposes all the seams. Prima Donna is both nostalgic and postmodern, but not in a simple way.
It’s an opera about opera, or rather, an opera about the way we relate to opera in the 21st century. The elements of opera emphasized in Prima Donna are the ones that describe it in the popular imagination today: sweeping romanticism, melodrama, Europe, foreign languages, sparkly dresses, high notes, grand divas, and heroines with crushed dreams. And, hanging over everything, the narrative of decline. The diva’s best days are over. Her beauty is fading, her opulent apartment has grown shabby, and her companions are deserting her. In the early Broadway musicals, while the form was on the rise, the plots were always about scrappy young nobodies transformed into stars; it’s hard not to read diva Saint Laurent’s decline as reflective of the fear and pessimism that shrouds the opera world today.
The music in Prima Donna is lush and romantic, with liberal use of the harp, but everything sounds a bit smoothed-over – there isn’t often much to catch the ear. It sounds sometimes as though Wainwright is anxious that he not be accused of simply arranging his pop songs for strings. But the most hooky moments are also the most enjoyable – the maid’s aria that opens the second act comes immediately to mind. The vocal performances are excellent all around, and all the principals (especially Opera Atelier regular Colin Ainsworth as the journalist) have rich and sumptuous voices. Janis Kelly as Regine the diva is commanding and entirely believable as a great star.
The libretto, sadly, is the weakest link. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s meant to be campy or serious. This is particularly disappointing given that Wainwright’s songs are full of lyric inventiveness and emotional nuance – his trademark charm is swallowed up here in grave, simplistic pronouncements. The characters in this opera express themselves like, well, characters in an opera – perhaps this is meant to serve the pastiche, but a smarter libretto would have gone a long way in lifting this work above banality.
As always, below are the alternative opinions. I’ve expanded the net this time to include productions of Prima Donna that took place in other cities. I can’t help but noting that reviewers who confessed to not being “opera people” seemed to enjoy the work the most, while opera buffs tended to be harsher with it. Perhaps this makes sense – when the trio from Rosenkavalier is explicitly referenced, it’s hard not to notice that Wainwright’s version of the trio isn’t as good. But if you’re new to opera and not making those comparisons, it might seem like just the right mix of romanticism, sensuality, sincerity, and drama, a combination that isn’t given a lot of space to play in our irony-obsessed moment. Prima Donna may be an ideal entry-level work for people who are curious about opera, but who like to keep one foot in the pop world. The premiere audience gave it a standing ovation.
UPDATE: added some reviews from Toronto. Since I attended the premiere, they weren’t available until this morning.
Parterre Box: “I’m glad that someone as undeniably talented as Wainwright loved opera enough to want to dare to write one of his own. It’s not quite an heroic failure, but it would be churlish indeed to say that it isn’t an honourable one.”
The New York Times: “ The opera ends with a tender aria for Régine, a long-spun melody with a gentle accompaniment riff: in other words, a Wainwright song. Would that there had been more of them.”
Toronto Star: “Despite the best efforts of those capable singers, a clever director, an impressive set and lighting and a willing orchestra and conductor, Prima Donna is a dramatic wreck.”
Globe and Mail: “Is it truly a work of our time? (No.) Does it point out a new way forward for the art form of opera? (Certainly not.) But if we ask a question that’s both smaller and more to the point – Is Prima Donna a musically and dramatically effective work? – the answer is a resounding yes.”
Eye Weekly: “Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna receives just about the finest production a first-time opera composer could hope for. Yet despite the ardent advocacy of the singers, conductor and director, the opera’s inherent flaws are all too apparent.”
Torontoist: “ Wainwright insists that an opera about opera has never been seen before, but the show fails to expand on that premise. Presented with the opportunity of taking a reflective look at the art form, the plot of this “meta-opera” instead focuses too much on the melodrama—the brash temper tantrums, the embellished embraces, and the soul-crushing heartbreak that have become clichéd in the eyes of non–opera-goers”
The Montreal Gazette: “The dedicated Rufus fan can see traces of his characteristic vocal style in some of the music, but as one audience member nearby asked, where are the tunes?”
The Guardian: “The score itself comes clothed as Strauss, Massenet and Puccini; Wainwright would seem to be on a mission to drag opera back into the late 19th century. But his gift as a melodist and an orchestrator are in no doubt”
NME: “Wainwright has earned the right to live out his Guiseppe Verdi fantasies. The fact he can not only make this grand folly work artistically, but also achieve it with his cool and affability intact, tells you a great deal about this remarkable artist’s charmed existence.”
The Independent: “Musically Prima Donna is at best banal, at worst boring. The orchestral writing is lumpy, leaden and repetitive, so that the merest flash of inspiration – a dashing musical signature for example – is welcomed with relief as an original idea.”
The Independent (again): “This rather camp confection bears some recognisable fingerprints of the Rufus Wainwright we know and love – kernels of melody and subversive harmony that occasionally knock it off-kilter – but for the most part it’s distressingly derivative”
Paste Magazine: “Overall, it was a charming and enjoyable, if not exceptional, work of art, and it was endearing to see a bearded Wainwright roaming the theater halls in top hat and cane. There was much of his persona evident throughout Prima Donna, and that was ultimately the opera’s greatest strength.”
The Evening Standard: “at times the music can descend into stylised vamping. But Wainwright has what too many starter opera composers lack, a sense of drama, of the ebb and flow of emotion and the vitalising force of character.”
The Omniscient Mussel: “Overall, Prima Donna is worth seeing. It is tempting to write it off as the work of an enthusiastic amateur imitating his heroes but the music is too good for that. Writing new opera is difficult and while there are several things that don’t quite work, what’s more important is that the opera shows tremendous potential.”
There Ought To Be Clowns: “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.”
City Life: “Prima Donna is an entertaining – and accessible – piece of music theatre, full of passion, drama and, perhaps most surprising and welcome, some wonderful grace notes of humour.”
Drowned in Sound: “Sure enough, opera buffs reacted fairly badly to Prima Donna, rejecting it as lightweight, musically boring, overlong and a bit silly; but they were missing the point entirely.”
Music OMH: “ The only people who may not be converted by this opera are the outright Wainwright haters, and that’s mainly because they won’t be giving themselves the chance to by staying at home. That group aside, anyone else is likely to be, at the very least, pleasantly surprised, if not, as I was, entirely bowled over by the experience.”
Primi Divi: “But the musical ideas just didn’t like go anywhere. The same idea was repeated over and over and after a while it got boring, it didn’t mean anything anymore. Like there was one bit where the main character Regine was singing in octaves, two notes an octave apart, going down the scale chromatically. Great stuff the first 3-4 times but after that it was like, sing something else can’t you?”