July 13, 2009 / 4:24 PM / 10 years ago

Critics split on Wainwright move from pop to opera

LONDON (Reuters) - Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright says opera saved his life more than once, and he has begun to pay it back with his first full-length work “Prima Donna”.

Singer Rufus Wainwright arrives at the premiere of the film "The Aviator," in Hollywood, California December 1, 2004. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

With trademark flamboyance, a bearded Wainwright dressed up as 19th century composer Verdi, complete with long black coat and top hat, for the opening night in Manchester, England, last Friday.

The musician appeared to be placing himself on an operatic pedestal even before his first work was performed, but early reviews of his debut opera suggested Wainwright may struggle to convince critics he is worthy of a place among the greats.

The Globe and Mail of Canada was complimentary, giving “Prima Donna” three stars out of four and calling the premiere “a thoroughly entertaining, if slightly barmy, evening.”

Reviewer Elizabeth Renzetti had particularly warm praise for the ending, where central character Regine sings as she watches Bastille Day fireworks from her Paris balcony.

“It’s a contemplative moment that contains more ideas than the preceding two hours,” she wrote.

In a more mixed review, Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times agrees:

“The opera ends with a tender aria for Regine, a long-spun melody with a gentle accompaniment riff: in other words, a Wainwright song. Would that there had been more of them.”

Lynne Walker of Britain’s Independent newspaper gave Prima Donna two stars out of five, and described it as a “flimsy plot ... spun out into a cheesy piece of full-length musical theatre.

“Musically Prima Donna is at best banal, at worst boring,” she added.

Critics compared passages from the opera to the likes of Ravel, Mascagni and Stephen Sondheim, and noted references to star soprano Maria Callas and the opera “Madame Butterfly.”


Prima Donna tells the story of Regine, a leading soprano who last performed in public six years earlier after something upset her during a performance of a work called “Alienor d’Aquitaine.”

Journalist Andre arrives for an interview, and the plot explores the mystery of what happened on the fateful night.

Wainwright, 35, was born into a family of musicians. His eclectic style has earned him critical acclaim and a cult following but limited commercial success.

Prima Donna was originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, one of the world’s leading opera houses, but media reports said the Met withdrew from the project partly because Wainwright insisted on writing the work in French.

The musician also objected to the long wait he would face to stage it in New York at a time when his mother, Canadian singer Kate McGarrigle, was suffering from cancer.

“I wanted her to see it and I’m sure she will be around for the next one and all of that but I couldn’t take that gamble at the time,” he told the Times newspaper earlier this month, adding that his mother was “doing really well right now.”

The Manchester International Festival picked up Prima Donna, which will be performed there on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato

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