The plangent opening strains of the first act overture redolent of Puccini and Mascagni signal that Rufus Wainwright’s debut opera Prima Donna is going to be a trip down operatic memory lane. But my spirits lifted when the curtain went up to reveal Antony McDonald’s awesome exterior architecture of a Paris apartment enhanced by Thomas Hase’s lighting. Framed in the window appears Regine (the diva queen) who has been hiding out for six years since the premiere of her greatest hit as queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Soprano Janis Kelly sings and acts convincingly, though the music is pretty boring, and the libretto, co-written by Wainwright and Bernadette Colomine, floats us in the atmosphere of self-indulgent, injured narcissism that this prima donna is hoping to step out of if today’s visit by a young journalist goes right.
Most of the first act is free of any drama beyond the fuss by butler and maid to get the place ready to receive a visitor. The music is emotionally flat. Enter Colin Ainsworth as the visitor. His good looks and piercing tenor brighten the scene considerably. Towards the end of the first act, Regine seduces him into a duet which she actually leads at the piano, and that is the first superior musical moment. The first dramatic moment is when they almost kiss. This heightened mood is sustained by a vocal quartet when the maid and the ‘heavy’ butler ably played by baritone Gregory Dahl get into the act.
The second act, right from the overture, is more satisfying than the first: more passion, more drama, better music–some minimalistic pulses behind the neo-romantic pastiches, and an inspired dreamlike flashback to six years ago and the night of Regine’s original triumph in music and disappointment in love. Set and costumes dazzle. It’s a high when you can feel that an aria is going to be applauded as two are: Charlotte Ellet as Marie the maid hits a high note that earns one, and Miss Kelly’s signature aria ending on the word “tristesse’ is truly touching. You can get past the claustrophobic ‘Sunset Boulevard’ ravings of an old queen and feel for her as she lets go of everyone in her life who stand between her and her naked loneliness.
In the final scene, she is again at the open window of her apartment, alone, in her slip, watching the fireworks in the street below, blessing the happy revellers and accepting with some grandeur the prison of her loneliness.