Rufus Wainwright’s Opera, ‘Prima Donna’ – Bleak, Overblown, And Dazzlingly Brilliant

It takes a special breed of rock musician to compose an opera that you’d willingly sit through without having first been bound and gagged. Damon Albarn managed it with ‘Monkey: Journey To The West’. Conceivably, someone like Nick Cave could pull it off.

The author has to be someone extravagantly gifted, whose previous output already has a touch of the intellectual/avant-garde. Not everyone falls into this category. If Peanut from Kaiser Chiefs penned a libretto, or Slayer guitarist Kerry King, you’d be instantly wary.

With Rufus Wainwright, however, it’s hardly much of a stretch. His music has always had an intricately orchestral, rococo quality – so when it transpired he’d penned a French-language opera, no-one was shocked. It’s not like he’d gone digi-punk, or released an EP of Lethal Bizzle covers.

Besides, it’s an impressive achievement. Writing an opera is high-up on the list of things only freakishly talented people can do, like being able to tell the difference between ‘Nuts’ and ‘Zoo’ magazines, or completing ‘Killzone 2’ on the highest difficulty setting.

Even so, there’s still a stigma attached to opera, a whiff of upper-middle-class pretension. It’s a difficult subject to discuss without sounding like an outrageous, shiraz-glugging ponce.

Indeed, when I told my friends I was going to Manchester to see ‘Prima Donna’, they could have been no more appalled had I suddenly sounded a fox-hunting trumpet, or started reciting the collected works of Noel Coward.

Well, it’s their loss – because ‘Prima Donna’ is dazzlingly brilliant.

Telling the self-reflexive tale of Regina Saint Laurent, an unlucky-in-love, Maria Callas-style retired soprano, as she prepares to return to the stage, the opera has a sparse narrative arc that enables Wainwright to meditate on the redemptive power of music (surely a subject close to his heart, given the crushing, drug-induced depths he’s plumbed in his own life) as well as the heartbreaking transience of creativity.

The bleak message is this: as an artist you may have one hit, one brief flicker of greatness – but you’ll then spend the rest of your life trying in vain to recapture it.

Counterbalancing the desolation of the plot, however, is an extraordinary visual verve, courtesy of set designer Antony McDonald. The whole thing looks sensational.

Even with my limited experience of opera – I’ve only ever seen Tosca (or was it Turandot? It was the one with an enormous amount of rape and death, ie every opera ever) – I can tell you that the staging was jaw-droppingly innovative, an ever-shifting backdrop that variously represented the heroine’s suffocating boudoir, a blood-spattered kitchen, and the Paris skyline, gloriously irradiated by fireworks.

The only letdown is that ‘Prima Donna’ didn’t feature more scenes from Wainwright’s own, drama-packed life. The going-blind-on-crystal-meth scene would have been a real hoot.

Still, Wainwright loomed large in other ways. Ever the shrinking violet, before the show he ‘did’ the red carpet three times before taking his seat. It was hard to miss him – he turned up wearing a top hat and twirling a silver-capped cane.

Indeed, I was left reeling at how someone can be so bursting with self-regard, yet still be so enormously likeable. If Brandon Flowers behaved like this, you’d think he was a total wanker.

Yet Wainwright has earned the right to live out his Guiseppe Verdi fantasies. The fact he can not only make this grand folly work artistically, but also achieve it with his cool and affability intact, tells you a great deal about this remarkable artist’s charmed existence.