Tuesday, 4 August 2009
Something strange happened when I was in Manchester a few weeks ago, losing my opera virginity to Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna: people were laughing.
This was partly thanks to Steve Kirkham generating big laughs during his fantastic turn as the loveably idiotic, high-camp porter of ageing opera diva Régine, but comedy also came from the incongruity of an opera being set in a home (albeit a luxurious, aristocratic Parisian residence) rather than amidst the pomp of public society. Particularly when Régine sings that her maid should bring a pot of coffee with ‘twooo CUUUPS’, Wainwright appears to be gently mocking opera as an art form conservatively reserved for tales of high drama and steep falls from grace rather than domestic tea break requests. (Either that, or he's being unknowingly ridiculous). Also, the fact that Prima Donna is an opera about opera makes it appropriate that Wainwright - adolescence spent largely in the opera audience - passes some kind of comment about what opera has been and what it is. I'm flattering myself, but it felt a bit like he was sharing a joke with the (potentially high number of) opera first-timers who came to see his librettist debut.
But thankfully he indulges himself in the expectations of melodrama and the opera genre. There is the ageing high society belle, the demons she is unable to exorcise, and her modest helpers, all played out in front of the spangled backdrop of crumbling aristocracy and fading fame.
Speaking of backdrops (this time literal ones), Antony McDonald’s design is one of Prima Donna’s treats. What must have been a huge budget has enabled McDonald to create an extraordinary stunning world for Wainwright’s characters to live in. Sparse yet luxurious, wall-high double doors and silver-panelled rooms that cover the entire stage instantly and effortlessly sketch the wealth of the privileged European aristocracy. But the silver walls are tarnished, and what was once glittering now flashes menacingly at the audience. Peter Mumford’s beautiful lighting design transforms this vast, empty, panelled lounge into the jaws of some furiously gnashing monster.
And then there is the wardrobe. Beautifully classic black gowns jostle with brashly fluorescent green dinner suits in a highly stylised production, while Régine spends entire scenes swathed in huge amounts of fabric, the flagging star swallowed by her on-stage persona. The butler Phillipe’s white face, scarlet lips and vivid suit reminded me (annoyingly, at first) of Jack Nicholson’s psychedelic psychopath, the Joker, but Jonathan Summers’ booming drawl suggests pure monster rather than menace. It was astonishing how the strong cast are able to convey such a clear sense of character through their singing.
That said, considering the emotional complexity of the huge majority of Wainwright’s music, it was surprising to see such vivid, crystalized, and almost obvious characterisation. In a lot of other contexts this would have been a strength, but knowing how much more Wainwright has to offer left me hankering for some of that ambiguity.
So instead, the other of Prima Donna’s big strengths lies, as you might expect, in Rufus' music. Soaring, acrobatic melodies, notes held long and high, sail from the stage. They’re accessible too (i.e. appreciable to those without music degrees, Lordship titles and opera season tickets) but it’s clear to see that Wainwright has not compromised his art for a wider audience. For all its razzmatazz, style, comedy and caricature, Prima Donna manages to pack a surprisingly hard emotional punch as Wainwright relishes the chance to deliver a tragic, operatic finish.