Monday, 30 October 2017

Wrainwright - Prima Donna (Armel, 2017)

Rufus Wrainwright - Prima Donna

Armel Opera Festiival, Budapest - 2017

Gergely Vajda, Róbert Alföldi, Je Ni Kim, Mária Farkasréti, Máté Sólyom-Nagy, Botond Ódor

ARTE Concert - 19 July 2017

There are certain risks associated with writing an opera about opera, unless you are Richard Strauss and have Hugo von Hofmannsthal as a librettist. Which, as that obviously implies, means that you have a lot to live up to. Somewhat in the thrall to Romanticism then and in complete contrast to most contemporary opera composition Rufus Wrainwright's first opera Prima Donna is, to say the least, a little florid if not actually musically and dramatically overwritten. On the other hand, as an opera that is essentially about the great opera tradition, you can excuse its excesses to some extent, particularly when it's done as well as this.

Dealing with a great opera singer living in seclusion and fear of her decline in a Paris apartment, Prima Donna is clearly inspired by the fate of Maria Callas. In a Paris apartment, Régine Saint-Laurent, a former great opera singer is looking back over her career. She hasn't sung in public since the acclaimed premiere of 'Aliénor d'Aquitaine' six years ago, singing a role one that was written for her, one she believes was the greatest role of her career and indeed one of the greatest parts in any opera. But the opera was in some way cursed, and the great diva's voice failed her on the night of the second performance. She hasn't sung it or any opera in the six years since, even though the press still show considerable interest in speculating at her making a comeback.

The success of Wrainwright's opera lies in it being more than just a loving tribute to an opera diva, and it even extends beyond the belief (and successful demonstration) of the power of opera to permit one to dream. There's also an essential human side to the story that it is essential to tell, and that's more than just the tragedy of the loss of greatness, the acceptance of the failing powers, the diminution of talent and genius, or the ending of a dream. In many ways it's also about acceptance that change is inevitable and that all things come to an end.

Prima Donna has a small cast, but none of them are supporting roles. In their own way each has singing challenges as great as those given to someone playing a grand diva, but they also support the wider implications of the work. Philippe, Madame Saint-Laurent's majordomo, is perhaps the one with the greatest delusions, and the one who has the hardest time accepting the fate of his mistress. He is someone who believes he has powers, managing (invisible?) servants around, arranging for a journalist to help give Régine the confidence to return to the stage.

For a while Philippe, Marie the maid, Régine and the journalist all fall into the thrall of this dream. The journalist, professing great love for the legend of her last great performance, encourages Régine to momentarily relive the experience, singing pieces from 'Aliénor d'Aquitaine', and Wainwright scores and sets the scene admirably. The rather Saint-Saëns-like opera within an opera does indeed seem to aspire to a greater place, to transport the participants and the listener to another world, only for the reality to come crashing back in.

The musical reference points are what you might expect; hints of Wagnerian Romanticism; lush Puccini-like orchestration, numbers and sentiments; even some Janáček rhythms and structuring, with Emilia Marty of the Makropulos Case an evident reference point, but there's also an element of Jenůfa and The Cunning Little Vixen in those deeper themes of dreams giving way to the acceptance of the harsh but undeniable realities of life. Conductor Gergely Vajda handles this without any suggestion of pastiche or irony as Wainwright's music has its own character and is closely related to the subject itself.

Whether the work touches on a deeper human element or remains lost in its own little world of opera could depend very much on how it is presented in any given production. The staging created by Róbert Alföldi specifically for the Armel Opera Festival competition in Budapest is simple but effective. It relies on the fact that the opera has a single physical location and a small cast of singers, and makes the most of them to transport the work into those other essential areas. The main transformation takes place in the appearance of Régine, between when she is over-dressed as the diva and shuffling around the apartment without her wig in a bathrobe. There are other little tricks of lighting and a 'spot-lit' platform that can transform the location and mood in a second, which this opera often does.

It shouldn't be underestimated however just how challenging the singing is for all four roles here. The female roles are really in the Richard Strauss register, dramatically and technically challenging for Mária Farkasréti's Madame Saint-Laurent, who also has to show an edge of vulnerability for the role of a great singer losing her voice to be credible. The high tessitura for Marie the maid calls for a light agile voice and Je Ni Kim (in competition) reaches those stratospheric heights impressively while retaining a sense of musicality. The journalist is also at the high end of the tenor voice, and Botond Ódor shows just how lyrical and beautiful that can be. Máté Sólyom-Nagy sings the baritone role of Philippe authoritatively and with sensitivity. The Armel production of Prima Donna is a very fine showcase for Wainwright's abilities as an adventurous and capable composer.

Links: Armel Opera Festival, ARTE Concert