You can tell Rufus Wainwright had a lot of ideas for an opera. Unfortunately, they all made it into his debut, Prima Donna (presented by City Opera at BAM), an ambitious but messy work about an aging soprano, Regine Saint Laurent (sung terrifically by City Opera rising star Melody Moore), a kind of Norma Desmond-lite readying for a return to the stage. It’s a show about spectacle, about shows; you could read it, through its main character, as a grand metaphor for the death of classical opera, an extinguishing history passed down to a generation that may or may not deserve it. The action is set within Regine’s ornate but tumbledown home as she and her pair of servants prepare for the arrival of a reporter, Andre (Taylor Stayton). The display they prepare for him—twice, once in each act, as the reporter leaves and then is invited back—is Prima Donna‘s first show-within-the-show: the vases of fresh roses, the lighted candles, the crisply uniformed help, the dowdy diva done up like a mid-20th century first lady, all meant to conceal the sad reality of a nervous, unstable woman living essentially alone among her anxieties and memories of bygone greatness.
The second show-within-the-show is an opera called Alienor d’Aquitaine, Regine’s last triumph and her comeback vehicle, which is first heard in Act I as Regine and Andre gather ’round a piano to perform excerpts (the help serving as the audience), and again in Act II, when Regine listens to her legendary recording and is transported back, literally, to that time upon the stage. These are great moments, the opera’s best: Wainwright is better at pastiche than he is when he writes in his own voice, which is an ungrounded mishmash of musical theater, popular music, and Romantic Italian styles. But in those Alienor sections, he sounds at ease: less insecure working outside his typical genre, less eager to impress the audience, more willing just to play with pretty, Pearl Fishers-esque melodies. It’s lovely. Must we always try to tear down and reinvent classical forms? I wish he had just written Alienor d’Aquitaine.
Instead, he has written around it with a framing device—and with aggressive orchestrations. My companion, a flutist, noted afterward that he only used that instrument as ornamentation, for tremolos and trills. “Everything was trills!” I said. Runs and riffs on the violins, arpeggios on the harp, smatterings of bells, and other sounds interfere at almost every moment with the singers’ melodies, even drowning them out. Most frustrating of all, though, is that Wainwright composes like a songwriter. The cast may sing gravely in French, but the influence of popular styles is conspicuous: the way he orchestrates sound effects to underscore punch lines (groan!), the way he presents an idea and quickly moves on to another one without having developed it. He writes in minutes-long snippets—like he’s making an LP, not an evening at the theater. Better to take just a couple of those ideas and work them out.
City Opera’s last performance of Prima Donna this season is tomorrow evening. For more info, click here.
Full disclosure: The L Magazine publishes the programs for BAM.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart