I watched *Prima Donna* on April 13, 2021. The performance was done from the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm in May 2020. The opera has music by Rufus Wainwright and a libretto by him and Bernadette Colomine. Wikipedia summarizes the story as “a day in the life of an aging opera singer anxiously preparing for her comeback in 1970s Paris, who falls in love with a journalist."
The story behind the opera is more interesting than the story OF the opera! The Met and Lincoln Center Theater announced in 2006 that they were starting a commissioning program for new operas, works that would premiere either at the Met or Lincoln Center Theater, depending on whether it was a large-scale or small-scale work. Wainwright was one of the composers announced in their initial reveal. Nico Muhly’s *Two Boys* was the first work to take the stage, at thte Met in the fall of 2013.
Wainwright delivered excerpts to the people in charge in December 2007. “It was revealed” (thank you, Wikipedia, for your discretion) in August 2008 that the piece would not be done at the Met or Lincoln Center. Wainwright said that the opera would have its premiere in Manchester in July 2009. The official word was that the Met and LCT insisted the opera by done in English and Wainwright insisted it be done in French. But the word on the street was that the Met and LCT didn’t this it was very good and used the language issue as an easy “out.”
I seem to remember the initial reviews being not exactly ecstatic. I heard an aria from the opera at a New York City Opera gala and thought it was lovely and diverting but not really grounded. It was more fragrance than food. The City Opera did a full production in 2012 and I did not see it. I was curious about this online production and figured it might be my one chance to see it.
The overture was uninspired but the first scene between the diva and her maid was impressive. The music wasn’t original, it sounded mostly like Puccini with splashes of Britten, Debussy, Ravel, and other composers I couldn’t quite place. The writing for the singers was glamorous and sure. The orchestration (done by Wainwright himself) was maybe overly colorful but not a huge problem. Best of all, Wainwright seemed to know what he was doing. Not masterful or particularly original, but well done. I’ve heard lots of mediocre new operas, and this was definitely not one of the worst.
Soprano Elin Rombo was wonderful as the diva. Her character reminded me of Barber’s Vanessa, and I love *Vanessa.* Rombo sounded great, she sang with color and style and her deportment was grand without being ridiculous. She and the whole cast treated the work with respect and care. Ditto the orchestra and conductor Jayce Ogren.
Baritone Jeremy Carpenter did a strong job with his long aria as Madame’s manservant, remembering her heyday. He really held the stage, it felt like a major moment - - the curious thing is why Wainwright thought this was a good idea. This should have been a two-minute wistful arioso, not a six-minute Serious Dramatic Turning Point.
Tenor Conny Thimander was very good in the thankless role of the journalist. The character is there to fawn over the prima donna and stir her up. He sang and acted with more dignity and sincerity than perhaps was in the score. His performance of the tenor aria from Madame’s opera was a highlight. But there was a troubling leap of logic in this scene - - it started with Madame at the piano, accompanying herself. She encouraged the journalist to sing the tenor aria, which he sang to her piano accompaniment. The aria became more involved and the orchestra crept in and the lighting changed to accommodate this change in atmosphere. That all made sense. Then the lights went back to normal and the two sang their duet with the orchestra. I’m splitting hairs, but if you’re going to set up these levels of musical reality, you have to be consistent.
The interlude that started the second act added Shostakovich to the list of musical references. Hey, if you’re gonna steal, steal from somebody good, right? Beate Mordal started the second act with a radiant aria for the maid, capped off with a high M (that’s my term for a high note that pops out of nowhere and doesn’t seem to have any purpose apart from being high ). Mordal, like Thimander, seemed to bring out something in the score that would have been hidden to other singers. Brava to her.
Madame’s vocalizing was amusing at first but went on way too long. She had an atmospheric aria and then she and the tenor had a scene together, a scene from the opera she was going to perform. It was unclear whether this was an actual performance, a performance in her apartment, or something happening in her imagination. If this is going to be ambiguous, the ambiguity has to be built into the show and not just unclear. The music in this scene had the annoying, constantly repeating, swirling manner of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Again, if you’re gonna steal, steal from somebody good.
Madame’s manservant had an overblown outburst, when Madame decided she wasn’t going to do the opera performance. It felt like <Insert Drama Here.> Never a good thing. The final scene, with the journalist showing up with his fiancée and Madame and her maid feeling awkward, was a cut-and-paste moment stolen from *Madama Butterfly.* Please. The ending was interesting but not really satisfying.