Opera review: Prima Donna | Palace Theatre, Manchester

Rufus Wainwright's long-awaited debut opera is a feast for the eyes but could do with a few more tunes

Waiting for the curtain to go up amid the tasselled comforts of Manchester's velvety old Palace theatre, I am amazed to spot Rufus Wainwright himself "sneaking" along the front stalls - master of disguise in a summery pink-patterned blazer with shouty silk waistcoat, buttercup tie, silver-topped cane and top hat (imagine a gay dream dance sequence from Three Men in a Boat), not to mention the excellent DH Lawrence beard he's been sporting these past hectic weeks. I know it's rude to point with your mouth open, but you have to admire his shameless puppy-dog self-advertisement, mock-bashful at the excited ripples of applause as he takes his seat alongside his bohemianly tousled ma and papa (Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III) and assorted supportive friends - a Pet Shop Boy, a Yentob - at the festival like ordinary people for Rufus's first stab at opera.

I imagine most of the crowd are (like me) not rabid opera-goers but honest Rufus fans, hopeful that our man's talent for lush, dramatic songwriting will find an exciting new home in this exalted firmament of proper art. After all, he's been going to the opera since he was 14. And aren't some of his songs like mini-operas in themselves? "Popera", some call it. A small step, surely, to proper opera - yes, "propera"!

But perhaps we fear too that Rufus's talent won't soar, that a verdict of sorts has already been handed down in the discreet language of sniffs by the unkind opera elite, led by New York's Metropolitan Opera, which originally commissioned the work but then got cold feet at Rufus's temerity to write the thing in French. (Don't they know opera's supposed to be foreign? And, hang on, isn't this the same New York Metropolitan Opera who commissioned Philip Glass's opera in Sanskrit?) Suffice it to say the whole thing has been one long drama, and that's before the Manchester International Festival stepped up, roped in Opera North, hired the hot young director Daniel Kramer, and put the show on right here.

It's the story of a fading opera queen, Régine Saint Laurent, who mysteriously quit the stage at the height of her powers six years ago and is now teetering on the brink of a comeback. Will she? Won't she? Philippe, her manipulative butler, wants her restored to the world's adoring gaze for his own vainglorious ends; Marie, Régine's maid, is anxious for Madame's sanity. Everything pivots on the visit from André, a famous journalist arriving soon to interview her. It is Bastille Day 1970, and there will be fireworks.

The first act moves at a fair clip, and the singing is admirable and expressive, led by Scottish soprano Janis Kelly as the flame-haired Régine - her face one moment disfigured with the torments of hell and the next sexy and radiant as she is almost flattered out of her pants by André (William Joyner), who it turns out is her most ardent fan. What she sees in him is less obvious (he looks like someone who has come to do the accounts), but they are soon duetting pleasingly at the piano.

Jonathan Summers is nicely monstrous as Philippe, a painted Joker-cum-Cruella bemoaning his mistress's decline - "Régine, you look like a madwoman!" (he can talk) - and plotting her return to celebrity with his minion François (Steve Kirkham), a capering Buttons in powder blue and a pillbox hat. Rebecca Bottone is quite brilliant as the bird-like Marie, flitting to Madame's assistance, trilling her sympathy in the upper registers. There are yearning arias, powerful ensemble singing and some wonderful synchronised shrieking. The orchestra, neither intrusive nor over-attentive (yes, a bit like a waiter), bring flurries and thunder, tenderness with strings, arguments punctuated by trumps of bassoon.

But I can't say that Rufus's pledge to bring tunes back to the opera is fully redeemed. I suppose there are tunes, but none I can imagine humming on my way back to the hotel. One senses a determination not to be frivolous, to pre-empt unwanted comparisons with his "pop" day job - though, to be fair, Wainwright's sinuous, layered, often dark melodies are only "pop" because no one can think what else to call them.

In the end we have opera, but is it Rufus? Not quite as we know him. The words don't help either. Even allowing for translation and the occasional droll Rufism, there's some terrible banality here. Should opera characters be wasting our time asking each other if they want tea or coffee, or pointing out more than once that Paris is not Picardy?

Maybe it needs more to talk about, more for people to do - maybe just more story. The staging and sets are inventive - I love the flashbacks, soapy vignettes thrashed out in bright cabins rolled into the main plot - but the opportunity for action is limited. You can only see a woman throw herself to the floor so many times before consulting your watch (and I speak as a man who has fallen asleep during operas more rich in incident than this one). And what exactly is Madame's problem anyway? Is it the mystery thing in her past that's driving her bonkers - or the thought of life passing her by? It doesn't heighten the drama by offering both explanations. Rather the opposite.

There's enough in this two-and-a-half hours to enjoy but I'm almost indecently ready to leap to my feet when Rufus finally bounds on stage to take his bow with the cast. Very wisely he's holding on to his hat.


Phil Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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