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Prima Donna an effective portrait of opera in its prime

What's Rufus Wainwright doing writing an opera? That's the question that's been hanging in the air for the last four years.

In 2006 the Metropolitan Opera surprisingly commissioned the Canadian singer-songwriter to write a new work, to be called Prima Donna. Even more surprisingly, the Met dropped the project just two years later - for the dubious reason that Wainwright intended his opera to be in French, not English.

But that setback didn't stop Wainwright. Working with co-librettist Bernadette Colomine, he completed Prima Donna, which premiered in Manchester last year. Toronto's Luminato Festival is currently staging the first North American production at the Elgin Theatre. The show opened on Monday, and more performances are scheduled for Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

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As the title would suggest, Prima Donna is about an opera singer. The plot is reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard: Régine Saint Laurent, an aging soprano, hopes to make a comeback - but her ambitions go awry when she falls in love with a young journalist. It's an opera about opera, and this is reflected not just in the text but also in Wainwright's score.

Stylistically, the music is melodic and tonal. However, there's very little of the edgy neo-tonal idiom of a Philip Glass or John Adams to be heard. On the contrary, Wainwright's musical language is overtly paleo-tonal, dripping with Puccini-esque lushness.

As such, it's not hard to build a critical case against Wainwright: his opera falters when faced with big, weighty questions. Is it truly a work of our time? (No.) Does it point out a new way forward for the art form of opera? (Certainly not.) But if we ask a question that's both smaller and more to the point - Is Prima Donna a musically and dramatically effective work? - the answer is a resounding yes. Wainwright has deftly made a virtue of his outsider status in the world of contemporary opera. Indeed, Prima Donna's nostalgic atmosphere seems to be inextricably connected to Wainwright's own fascination with opera's Golden Age.

Happily, the director (Toronto-based Tim Albery) and the cast bought into Wainwright's vision. Janis Kelly brought a burnished soprano voice and restrained dignity to the role of Régine. Opposite her, as the journalist André Letourneur, Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth sang with youthful passion. Bass Gregory Dahl (another Canadian) and soprano Charlotte Ellett, as the butler and maid, respectively, contributed admirably to Monday evening's performance.

Antony McDonald's scenery - which was imported from England, but had to be scaled back to fit on the Elgin Theatre's small stage - was simple yet evocative of a distinctively Parisian style of faded glory.

Unfortunately, the weak link was the orchestra: a pick-up band of local players that, under the baton of Robert Houssart, sounded insecure and under-rehearsed.

But all things considered, at the end of the night the score was Wainwright 1, Metropolitan opera 0. The Met missed the boat on this one.

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