Tuesday, 13 April 2010


12/4/10, Sadlers Wells

2 hrs 45 mins. Rufus Wainwright's remarkably conventional opera about a fading diva (Callas? Fonteyn?) on Bastille Day 1970 contemplating a triumphant return to the stage after six years in seclusion in her Paris apartment, her voice having given out on the second night of her greatest triumph as Eleanor of Aquitaine.

I wasn't sure what to expect, but it wasn't this. The cast list promised Janis Kelly and Rebecca Bottone, both of whom can certainly sing; in the pit was a full orchestra. But what little one knew of Rufus Wainwright (son of Loudon and of Kate McGarrigle, so presumably a man with his roots in roots music) gave no reason to suppose he'd be adept at managing or composing for such traditional classical forces. We (well, I in my patronising way) feared an embarrassing pastiche. But then much of Lloyd Webber's music is pastiche and it hasn't done him any harm.

In the event it was, if not a triumph then a very decent, dramatic, convincing, sometimes moving and occasionally tuneful evening, and a great vehicle for a fine singer (not forgetting a delightfully simple Act Two opening aria for Bottone, in which she observes that the men in Paris are not like those in her native Picardy, which got the only genuine applause of the night: so traditional).

The music was sometimes derivative. We caught echoes of Puccini and of Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne and snatches of minimalism a la Philip Glass or John Adams. One of the big numbers was, I think, a barcarolle reminiscent of Offenbach's. A thought the horns at the start of Act Two were pure Aaron Copeland. But if you're going to steal, steal from the best. The harmonies were conventional even if quite a lot of the music for the sopranos lay uncomfortably high in their register, as it often seems to in modern works.

It was a four-hander, no chorus, with two silent walk-ons. At the start we see the diva, Mme Saint-Laurent, Regine, alone in her gloomy apartment in her shift with shrouded grand piano and blanket on the sofa where she seems to spend her days. The new maid arrives and bonds with the lonely woman, revealing in passing that her husband beats her. Enter the diva's butler, a domineering man with whom she has a deeply exploitative relationship; he fills the room with flowers. He has fixed up an interview with a young journalist ahead of her return to the stage. She exits, returning dressed in a wonderfully natty little black number and killer heels (the maid wears even higher ones). The young man turns out to be a fan, to have studied as a singer and to have brought the score of Eleanor of Aquitaine with him. They sing the great duet together (Kelly accompanying the pair of them on the piano, which she plays rather well). Then she breaks down as her voice fails. He leaves promising to return that evening for supper and the Bastille Day fireworks.

Act Two sees Regine preparing for supper dressed in full fig as Eleanor, including a fine red wig. She puts on the live recording of her first night as Eleanor. The set breaks apart (back wall rises, side walls pull back, fake proscenium descends -- a word of praise for the fine expressionist lighting here and elsewhere, by Peter Mumford) to transform the stage into that of an opera house, on which in her imagination she sings the duet with her leading man. Then the voice goes again, normality returns, the wig is torn off, she collapses, the butler returns, the young man arrives but with his fiancee (he'd forgotten they had a date) and gets her to sign his copy of the album, the butler rages (he's wasted his life supporting her and now she fails him), hits her, leaves with the maid's imprecations ringing in his ears and begging forgiveness, the maid gets a signed album and is dismissed, the diva strips down to her shift and wanders around the empty apartment until (the front wall with three great windows which was there at the start having descended again) she watches the fireworks, listens to the Marseillaise and then walks out onto the window ledge to her presumed doom (there was an extension over the front of the stage out onto which she strode to be framed in a spotlight before the final blackout; S said she was walking the plank; we wondered if she might jump for real but she'd have done terrible damage to the violas if she had).

All sung in French (but then W is Canadian and he had a francophone co-librettist).

If it sounds melodramatic it was, but this is opera, and it worked rather well: judiciously paced, strongly-characterised, music meshing effectively with the action. S thought the Big Tune from the opera was overused but it seemed about right to me. There was a neat reprise of the maid's aria somewhere near the end as well.

The only caveat: this was an opera about opera, about its power to transport and its difficulty as a medium, and about the pressures of celebrity. Very post-modern, very self-referential. Easy to conjure up big emotions, grand illusions and so forth when your subject is an artform renowned for its big Es and grand Is. I'd like to see Mr Wainwright tackle something more clearly connected with the real world, rather than a beautifully crafted piece of art about art.

It was the London premiere (it was first seen at the Manchester Festival last year -- judging by the photographs on the Guardian website and the synopsis on Wikipedia it's been pared down and simplified considerably since, and partly redesigned and recast with a new director, Tim Albery in place of Daniel Kramer). The theatre was full slebs and there were snappers at the door; we plebs in the second circle had to wait an age for them all to get upstairs to the reception before we could get out to the street. At the bottom of the stairs we met the band waiting patiently to go up for their free drinks. Someone spotted Boy George (wonder what he made of it?); I managed Graham Norton and Bill Paterson glimpsed in passing on the way out.

At the curtain call Wainwright came on wearing an utterly outrageous pink tartan suit.

I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

1 comment:

  1. The reviews were pretty scathing. They identified borrowings from or echoes of not only the composers I listed but also Massenet, Strauss, Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, Janacek, Poulenc, Weill... Fiona Maddocks in The Observer called it " a tutti-frutti of plundered styles and tropes" and "an operatic Madame Tussauds", "piffle" and "opera's equivalent of vanity publishing." Wow. Michael White in the Telegraph was kinder and much fairer: "Wonderfully absurd? Absurdly wonderful?... And yet it’s also touching, haunting, sometimes beautiful and far more capable a piece than I expected. It outclasses Paul McCartney’s excursions into ’seriousness’. It’s musically more worthwhile than anything in the Lloyd Webber canon you could call operatic. And I just wish I could figure out whether its resort to every opera cliché in the book is the result of innocence or calculation." The music? "The invention isn’t sustained: ideas don’t develop, they’re patched together with the musical equivalent of scissors and paste. The pace is unrelievedly pedestrian: it’s always harder to write fast music. And the orchestration is raw, like cabaret music stretched to breaking point." But overall? "Yes, it was derivative and crude, but as a love-note to the world of opera it was also deeply touching and heartfelt." The Guardian called it "cut-and-paste late 19th-century romantic opera" and called it "the work of a man who loves opera and the sensations it delivers, without understanding how it is paced, or how it generates dramatic tension." And David Nice on The Arts Desk was won over: "What began in sticky artifice ended in a chaste authenticity."