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WAINWRIGHT: Prima Donna

CD Button Kelly, Guthrie; Figueroa, Morrison; BBC Symphony Orchestra, Ogren. Texts and translations. Deutsche Grammophon 479 5340 (2)

Recordings Prima Donna Cover 216

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT'S OPERA Prima Donna is an ambitious paean to that perennial figure of fascination, the diva. Régine Saint Laurent is une soprano d’un certain âge, planning a return to the stage after years in seclusion following a disastrous performance. She’s well past her prime, and this is a fool’s errand. But, encouraged by her obsequious servant, Philippe, and her perky, well-meaning maid, Marie, Régine welcomes into her home André, a young journalist as obsessed as she with her past triumphs. André is also a tenor, and as the action progresses, it becomes apparent that he doesn’t want to interview her as much as sing with her and make love to her. This they do, as they reenact the central romantic scenes from the (fictional) opera in which Régine crashed and burned all those years ago—Aliénor d’Aquitaine, based on the fraught love between Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. 

Wainwright’s score is intelligent, sophisticated and original while still paying Romantic homage to Verdi, Puccini and Strauss. (Note the hint of Turandot when Régine greets André, which resonates conversely: if he asks, as opposed to answers, the wrong question, he’s likely to get his head bitten off.) Unfortunately, the narrative deficits in the French libretto by Wainwright and Bernadette Colomine limit the score’s effectiveness. Neither Régine’s love/hate relationship with her unreliable voice nor the celebrity-worship of her sycophants is a grand theme worthy of dramatization on an operatic scale. Yes, there is loss—Régine’s loss of voice, Philippe’s loss of a social whirl, Marie’s loss of marital happiness, André’s loss of a pedestal-worthy goddess—but these don’t compensate for the lack of a central relationship in which to invest. The music Wainwright has crafted for Aliénor is the most specific and compelling part of the score, because it’s doing what the rest of the opera is not—giving voice to a grand passion. 

The singers acquit themselves admirably, especially given the denseness of Wainwright’s orchestration, which, though skillful and imaginative, is often overwhelming. He is more effective when he simplifies his textures than when he throws the entire toolbox at a tune. For example, the thrumming orchestration in Philippe’s extended aria “À l’époque, François” hints at his restlessness and ambition, an aria that includes the line, “I fell deeper and deeper into despair, for her, naturally.” Richard Morrison manages to convey, here and elsewhere, a devotion to his mistress that crosses the line into codependency. Antonio Figueroa’s André suffers when the plaintive and expressive solo piano accompaniment in the first Aliénor section gives way to full orchestral power. In the more sensitively orchestrated Act II Aliénor duet, “Dans ce jardin,” Figueroa exhibits a beautifully burnished, almost contralto sound. Here, too, Janis Kelly’s Régine manages to sound years younger—an appropriately nifty trompe l’oreille, since we are supposed to believe we’re listening to the recording of Régine’s long-ago performance. Throughout, Kelly sings with a rich, sensual sound, and there is a moving, wistful sense of regret in her penultimate aria, “Prenez-le donc.” Soprano Kathryn Guthrie offers a sweet, bright Marie. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jayce Ogren plays with transparent charm, especially during the nostalgic, wistful overture and in the vibrant, exciting entr’acte. —Joanne Sydney Lessner 

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