First seen at the Manchester International Festival in 2009, Rufus Wainwright’s eagerly awaited opera debut, Prima Donna, opened at Sadler’s Wells last night with all the passion and flair you would expect from the flamboyant musician.
Prima Donna is set amongst the romance and excitement of Paris on Bastille Day in 1970. High above the crowds in her grand apartment aging diva Régine Saint Laurent is faced with a life changing decision. Once the most famous and revered operatic soprano in the world, she must decide whether to take to the stage for the first time in six years and perform her legendary signature opera, a production that was both the highlight of her career and her ultimate downfall.
Around her in the fading grandeur of her home are Marie, her sweet and naive maid, and her long serving butler, a monster of a man who longs for the magic and glitter of the old days when his mistress was Paris’s star, before the vast apartment shutters were closed and Régine cowered behind them in a pit of anxiety. When a journalist arrives ready to interview his idol and reintroduce her to the world, old fears and memories surface creating a whirlwind of dramatic events.
Under new direction by Tim Albery and with an updated set for the Sadler’s Wells stage by Antony McDonald, gone are the acid colours from the original staging, replaced by an imposing tarnished bronze reception room, with huge windows, dusty mirrors and photos of a younger, happier Régine, the light gone from what would once have been a beautiful room. Albery’s production has plenty of contemporary, quirky touches however, with a slightly-too-green tree reflected on the building outside, mirrored floor-to-ceiling doors that throw blinding light into the room when flung open, and vast oversized projected raindrops that fall against the building in Wainwright’s signature over-the-top style.
At the heart of the opera is the fear of growing old and risking losing what was once most important and fundamental to you. Janis Kelly as the lost diva encapsulates both the fierceness and fragility of the broken star, relying on wigs and costumes to become the stylish, confident public figure she once was, transforming from the dishevelled older woman she has become. Paired with the pretty voiced Rebecca Bottone as Marie the country girl out of her cultural and moral depth in the heart of Paris, Kelly’s voice is full of the gravitas and emotional depth required for such a role.
Sung in French with surtitles, Wainwright and his co-writer Bernadette Colomine’s libretto is emotionally charged and peppered with Wainwright’s usual dark humour. Paired with the soaring score performed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and the stylish staging, the opera is both captivating and light, making it a perfect introduction to potentially a whole new generation of opera fans.