MUSIC REVIEW Michael White Prima Donna
ST PAULʼS CATHEDRAL
When pop stars take to writing operas, critics groan. And I admit I expected the worst from Prima Donna – a first attempt by Rufus Wainwright that promised to be a shambling travesty of the genre but turned out to be a perfectly laudable, surprisingly coherent, touching, haunting, sometimes beautiful piece, albeit one that rummages through every operatic cliché in the book.
An ageing singer (curiously like Maria Callas) is disintegrating in a chic Paris apartment at the end of her career: withdrawn into internal exile but cheered by the arrival of a dashing young music journalist (that there should be such things!) who might just become her toyboy lover and inspire a triumphal return to the stage.
If you think that reads like Andrew Lloyd Webber, you’re not wrong – although with added detail the narrative gradually morphs the heroine into an all-purpose opera archetype: in turn a fading Violetta, a Tosca who gives all (and probably too much) for art, a fantasising Ariadne, a self-martyring Marschallin, a jilted Madame Butterfly... in short, a one-woman encyclopaedia of diva-dom.
The score works in a comparably encyclopaedic manner, as though stitched together from a Desert Island Discs collation of your favourite moments with the great composers. And for the record it’s technically raw, with a lot of bad patchwork to cover an inability to develop ideas, and crazily camp – even in this dark, imposing production by Tim Albery that tones down the apparently extravagant abandon of its original staging.
But it’s also endearingly likeable, utterly heartfelt; and on its own, innocent terms it works – as a sort of love letter to the world of opera from an obsessive fan. Which Rufus Wainwright must presumably be.
He certainly knows the repertoire, since so much of it has ended up in his score. And if the worst moments are laughable, the best are captivating. Interestingly, I’m told by someone who knows more about Rufus Wainwright’s career than I do that those best moments are the ones closest to his own voice as a songwriter. Which makes me, cloistered fogey that I am, want to experience the songs. They’re obviously good.
In fairness I should add that, however crude the orchestration, it’s not bad for a first attempt – if, as he claims, he did it himself. It’s just that he hasn’t learned the things you only learn through experience.
Whether he’ll ever do that learning, I’m not sure. This piece had the makings of a one-off: a Gesamtkunstwerk into which he’s poured everything he had to say about opera.
What’s more, the piece is a gift for Janis Kelly, the soprano who bravely takes the role of broken-down diva. Something of a diva in her own right, and now in the home stretch of her career, she might have found Prima Donna an uncomfortable task. But she does it with elegance, wisdom, style. And whether the piece is wonderfully absurd or absurdly wonderful (I’m still in self-dispute), it inspires the best performance I’ve ever seen her give. For this alone it merits respect.
One of the most heartening events in post-Wall German history has been the rebuilding of Dresden: a city of once breathtaking baroque beauty, cruelly destroyed but now rising out of its own helpfully preserved rubble and returning to life. The symbol of its resurrection is the Frauenkirche, a domed wonder restored and functioning again. And last week the Frauenkirche choir were on tour through England, with a stop at St Paul’s Cathedral where they proved their resilience to the bathtub acoustics of domed interiors and gave an impressively well-defined recital of mostly German repertoire – sung in a distinctly German way.
Warm, cushioned, rounded sound, it’s the equivalent of German comfort food, and none the worse for that. The only thing I didn’t care for were their robes. Newly designed – but not, alas, with the historic accuracy of the Frauenkirche’s architecture – they looked horribly like dustbin liners with a collar tacked on. Not an asset to the otherwise immaculate aesthetic of their music-making.