Prima Donna

Rufus Wainwright; co-librettist Bernadette Colomine
Conducted by Pierre-André Valade
Palace Theatre, Manchester

Prima Donna

The big red-carpet event at the second Manchester International Festival is the first opera written by popular, versatile Canadian singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright from the famous musical Wainwright family.

The opera opens in Madame Régine Saint Laurent's nightmare about her performance of Aliénor d'Aquitaine six years ago when her voice failed, the last time she performed in public. A journalist, a former singer himself, arrives to interview her about her return to the stage in the same role, but there is a spark between them as they sing together that betrays an echo of the reason for her failure six years previously. In flashbacks, we see Madame in her fateful last performance playing her onstage love scene with a hint of genuine passion for her co-star and witnessing an offstage betrayal.

The realisation of this is simplistic on a number of levels, from plot and dialogue to character psychology. The story unfolds in a small number of long scenes which, if written as spoken dialogue, would have be stretched to fill half an hour of total stage time. The dialogue is mostly quite banal and repetitive, which makes the passion with which it is sometimes delivered seem rather forced. The plot is quite predictable, so when Phillippe, the aggressively domineering butler, asks what could be causing Madame's continuing vocal problems, most members of the audience had worked it out some time ago and are wondering why he hadn't realised after six years.

The 'opera within an opera' produces some predictably self-referential gags, although when the characters claim that their life is "just like being in an opera" it is too easy to disagree. There is no attempt to distinguish musically between the singing of the opera we are watching and when the characters are supposed to be singing the opera in the story (although the surtitles are italicised to help), which misses the opportunity to add a bit of variety and produces niggles like the apparent paradox of Madame singing about losing her voice in a perfect and powerful soprano voice.

Antony McDonald's design places most of the production in a large, bare, monochromatic attic room with slats across the windows of the type that has been featured and parodied in many films, adverts, pop videos and comedy sketches of the past fifty years. Into this set, McDonald and lighting designer Peter Mumford introduce flashes of gaudy colour, such as the brightly-coloured uniforms of the servants and the painting of whole areas of the stage and the people in them with solid, deep colours.

The flimsy material is saved to some extent by strong performances all round. Janis Kelly is superb as the flaky prima donna of the title. Jonathan Summers is excellent as the domineering butler Phillippe, especially when he loses his temper with his employer in the second act, although in his bright green suit and white face he does resemble The Joker from Batman. Rebecca Bottone is good as the new maid and Madame's new confidante Marie, as is William Joyner as journalist André. Steve Kirkham is Phillippe's camp 'companion' François, and Kath Duggan completes the cast as surprise fiancée Sophie and one or two other roles.

MIF has collaborated with three other partners from around the world at Sadler's Wells, Toronto and Melbourne to produce this opera, and as an experimental new piece it is the sort of thing festival money should be going towards. However the lack of any real plot or substance and perhaps of musical depth and variety make this an interesting festival curiosity with celebrity value rather than an absorbing or enduring new major work.

Running until 19th July, 2009

Reviewer: David Chadderton