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Rufus Wainwright's debut opera, 'Prima Donna,' opens to mixed reviews

You will recall that singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright was invited by the Metropolitan Opera, no less, to compose a work for the company, but the project hit a snag. The Met announced that Wainwright's insistence on writing Prima Donna, his first opera, in French, rather than English, was unacceptable, so the deal was off. My sources tell me a different tale, for what it's worth -- that Met officials listened to some of the score at an early stage in the creative process and found it ever so slightly wanting.

Whatever the full story (as Tony Tommasini points out, if the Met can produce an opera by American composer Philip Glass sung in Sanskrit, it seems odd to reject an opera by a Canadian-American composer sung in French), Wainwright was hardly deterred. His opera, which tells a Norma Desmond-like tale of a troubled, aging diva named Regine and her effort to start singing again after a long silence, was quickly snapped up by ...

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the Manchester International Festival, where it was premiered over the weekend. The reviews that I've spotted are, unsurprisingly, mixed. One thing that was a clear hit, I gather -- Wainwright's provocative arrival at the theater, dressed as one of opera's greatest composers.

Here's a sample of the reactions:

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THE GUARDIAN/ALFRED HICKLING

The first thing to point out is that this is no mere rock star's vanity project, though few stars are quite as vain as Wainwright, who swans to his seat in the stalls sporting a top hat and silver-topped cane, having apparently decided that the best way to announce himself as an opera composer is to grow a beard and dress up as Verdi.

The score itself comes clothed as Strauss, Massenet and Puccini; Wainwright would seem to be on a mission to drag opera back into the late 19th century. But his gift as a melodist and an orchestrator are in no doubt, having been proved on a series of albums which are mini-operas in their own right.

NEW YORK TIMES/ANTHONY TOMMASINI

As a longtime admirer of his music, I wish I could report that Prima Donna fulfilled his ambitions for writing a fresh and personal new opera. He certainly brings deep talents and potential to the challenge ... There are inspired touches and disarmingly beautiful passages in this mysterious, stylistically eclectic work ... But Mr. Wainwright's score and his attitude toward the drama often seem muddled, as if he were relying too much on his keen musical and theatrical instincts lest he overthink and impede his imagination ...

In his songs Mr. Wainwright will evoke Hollywood strings, a hint of Carmen or a brass band, and the listener goes along for the stylistic ride. But in an opera of some two and a half hours the extended passages in sundry styles make you wonder what is going on. Is it ironic? Cavalier? Intentionally maudlin?

Some of the most captivating moments are the simplest musically ... The opera ends with a tender aria for Régine, a long-spun melody with a gentle accompaniment riff: in other words, a Wainwright song. Would that there had been more of them.

THE INDEPENDENT/LYNNE WALKER

[T]his flimsy plot is spun out into a cheesy piece of full-length music theatre. The only surprise was that Wainwright didn't create a part for himself, the primo uomo having made a grand entrance into the theatre dressed up as Verdi, with a beard grown for the occasion, his companion making a remarkably realistic Puccini. The buzz was palpable before the curtain rose. Flanked by his sister Martha and mother Kate McGarrigle, Wainwright, basking in flash photography, seemed in no doubt as to who was the star of this show ...

Musically, Prima Donna is at best banal, at worst boring. The orchestral writing is lumpy, leaden and repetitive, so that the merest flash of inspiration – a dashing musical signature for example – is welcomed with relief as an original idea. Wainwright didn't need to pay homage to all those dead composers he adores by including so many fragments of their scores in his own opera.

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