Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Prima Donna’: What did the critics think?


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It’s not every day that a pop star assumes the heavy mantle of opera, but if any songwriter has the hubris and vanity to take on the challenge, it would be Rufus Wainwright.

Prima Donna,’ the Canadian star’s first attempt at composing opera, generated a huge amount of buzz leading up to Friday’s opening night at the Manchester International Festival. Composed by Wainwright, who also co-wrote the libretto, the opera tells the story of Regine Saint Laurent, a fallen opera diva who is contemplating her big career comeback after six years away from the stage. Set during Bastille Day 1970, the opera follows her interactions with a journalist and her servant as she seesaws between emotional extremes.


Performed in French, ‘Prima Donna’ was originally slated for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but Wainwright reportedly refused to give in to the company’s insistence on an English-language opera. Following its run this month in Manchester, the opera is scheduled to play at Toronto’s Luminato Festival in 2010.

Wainwright, who arrived at Friday’s premiere dressed as Giuseppe Verdi, has made a point of telling journalists about his lifelong love for all things operatic. But does the opera world love him back? More to the point, do the critics?

The first reviews for ‘Prima Donna’ have been all over the map, though one can safely assume that Rufus won’t be giving up his day job anytime soon...

The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini wrote that ‘there are inspired touches and disarmingly beautiful passages in this mysterious, stylistically eclectic work.’ But he added that ‘Mr. Wainwright’s score and his attitude toward the drama often seem muddled, as if he were relying too much on his keen musical and theatrical instincts lest he overthink and impede his imagination.’

Even harsher was Warwick Thompson of Bloomberg: ‘There were tears of joy in Rufus Wainwright’s eyes when he took his bow after the world premiere of his opera “‘Prima Donna’ in Manchester, England. There were some in mine too, though the joy sprang more from relief that it was over.’ The reviewer faulted the opera for sounding too pop: ‘Musically it sounds as if it were created by someone doodling at the piano: that is, the tonal melodies generally float over accompanying chord sequences which move in blocks, as in a pop song.’

Lynne Walker of The Independent complained that ‘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. Wainwright didn’t need to pay homage to all those dead composers he adores by including so many fragments of their scores in his own opera.’


Sounding a more generous note, Alfred Hickling of the Guardian wrote that ‘this is no mere rock star’s vanity project, though few stars are quite as vain as Wainwright.’ He added: ‘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, having been proved on a series of albums which are mini-operas in their own right.’

Richard Morrison of the Times praised Wainwright’s music for being ‘far richer, harmonically and orchestrally, than one might have expected.’ He added that ‘Prima Donna’ is primarily a ‘love song to opera, soaked in the perennial operatic themes of loss, betrayal, delusion and nostalgia, and saturated in the musical styles of opera’s golden age. Fans who come expecting anything folky or rock-like are in for a shock.’

The Globe and Mail’s Elizabeth Renzetti wrote that ‘there’s no shortage of emotion in ‘Prima Donna,’ as you might expect from the first opera by Rufus Wainwright, who does nothing by half-notes. Strings soar, teeth are gnashed, heroines throw themselves across beds; it’s not opera, it’s Opera. It makes for a thoroughly entertaining, if slightly barmy, evening.’

-- David Ng