BBC Symphony Orchestra play Wainwright

'Bafflingly fruitless opera'

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Wainwright
LABELS: DG
ALBUM TITLE: Wainwright
WORKS: Prima Donna
PERFORMER: Janis Kelly, Kathryn Guthrie, Antonio Figueroa, Richard Morrison; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jayce Ogren
CATALOGUE NO: 479 5340

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Acclaimed singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright is much loved for his bittersweet melodies, wry lyrics and heartfelt performances. With a string of clever and affecting hits to his name, celebrated by critical and popular opinion alike, Wainwright has nothing to prove to the music world. Yet he claims his heart has always truly belonged to opera, noting a ‘long and intense history of going to the opera as if it were a religion since I was 14 years old’, a devotion that has resulted in this, his bafflingly fruitless opera Prima Donna, premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2009.

The work recounts a day-in-the-life of faded opera star Régine Saint Laurent as she explores her doomed hopes to return to the stage in an interview with an adoring music journalist. Set inexplicably in 1970 on Bastille Day, the score is ostensibly late 19th-century in colour, strongly redolent of Puccini and thus infused with the same misplaced nostalgia as Régine herself (and not in good way). The libretto is curiously and unhelpfully in French – a feature that apparently saw the work’s original commissioners, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, reject the work in its early stages – and is thin on either drama or poetry.

Prima Donna has however been well recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, with the splendid soprano Janis Kelly in the lead role and a luscious-sounding BBC Symphony Orchestra in the pit, directed by Jayce Ogren. It is thus hard to challenge either recording or performance, yet sadly neither advantage can salvage this derivative and uncomfortably hagiographic homage.

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Kate Wakeling