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Monday, February 20, 2012

Opera Review: Doin' the French Mistake

City Opera opens Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna.
Melody Moore as Regíne Saint-Laurent in Prima Donna.
Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2012 New York City Opera.
by Paul J, Pelkonen

On Sunday afternoon, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York City Opera offered its second production of the 2012 season: the U.S. premiere of Rufus Wainwright's first opera, Prima Donna. Mr. Wainwright's name recognition and reputation as an award-winning singer-songwriter are seen as key to the success of this work and the opera company itself. But the two-act work is more of a curiosity than a valid artistic statement.

Mr. Wainwright's work has been called a "love letter" to opera in the press materials. But while the Canadian composer borrows freely from four centuries of operatic history, he does not break new ground. The effect is not so much a love letter as a ransom note, pasted together from Italian, French and German composers, with a post-script by Philip Glass.

To his credit, Mr. Wainwright shows skill in establishing a smooth orchestral surface. Luxuriant tonal pillows are provided to rest the voices of his cast upon. The score's inspirations range from the medieval to the minimal, with major debts to Massenet, Debussy, and in one scene, Wagner. Pleasant sounds flow from he orchestra pit, occasionally interrupted by irritating percussion stabs, keyboard flourishes and heavy brass chords.

The libretto (in French, by Mr. Wainwright and Bernadette Colomine) is a warmed-over Sunset Boulevard, transferred to the world of opera in Paris and with a happier ending. Like Norma Desmond, the diva (played here by Melody Moore) longs to return to the limelight in her greatest role--in this case Eleanor of Aquitaine. The story spends two acts in her gloomy Paris apartment, a chamber of burnished mirrors and broken dreams.

Ms. Moore sings the role with enthusiasm and energy, maintaining the long, soaring vocal lines with clear tone and a commanding stage presence. She reminisces on playing Aliénor, taking a recording down from her mantelpiece. She starts an onstage record player. The orchestra takes over. The walls melt away and suddenly the audience is in that fictional opera soaring on waves of orchestral writing. It is a magnificent coup de théâtre.

Mr. Wainwright created magic in this one scene. But cruelly, he gives up when the record ends, drawing the curtain on his opera-within-an-opera, forcing the listener back to the claustrophobic apartment and impending artistic crisis. In the final pages, the idiom changes from romanticism to minimalist expression, as Ms. Moore sets off vocal fireworks against simple, repeated cells played on the keyboards and strings.

The cast of Prima Donna: Randal Turner, Melody Moore, Katherine Gutherie Demos,
Tayor Stayton.) Photo by Carol Rosegg © 2012 New York City Opera.
In Act I, the diva is interviewed by André, (tenor Taylor Stayton) an opera fan turned journalist. André nearly enters a disastrous romantic tryst, but escapes the fate of Joe Gillis. Mr. Stayton presents an appealing onstage manner and a potent tenor voice with a bright timbre. The role is demanding, lying very high in the voice and requiring Strauss-like heroics when Mr. Stayton impersonates King Henri in the operatic flashback.

Baritone Randal Turner is Philippe, a grumpy butler--the Erich von Stroheim character. He is the closest thing that the libretto has to an antagonist. As the faithful maid Marie, soprano Katherine Guthrie Demos gives a sky-scraping performance. Ms. Demos brings some much-needed fire and energy to Regíne's gloomy chamber. Her Act II table-setting aria earned the loudest applause of the afternoon.

There is a lot riding on the slender shoulders of Ms. Saint-Laurent and Mr. Wainwright. It could also be argued that the faded soprano's attempted stage comeback parallels the struggles of New York's second opera company. City Opera left its Lincoln Center home last year, promising to use the "whole city" as its stage. But if the rebooted company wanted to make its bones as an innovator in the genre, this is not the opera to do it with.

Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

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