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Adelaide Festival Theatre
March 18, 2017
Prior to this show, I had seen Rufus Wainwright five times, my favourite performance being at the Norwood Town Hall in 2008 on tour with his band basking in the success of Want 1 and 2 where he finished with Judy Garland's Get Happy dressed in her famous outfit from Summer Stock.
Wainwright is a brilliant songwriter. Want 1 and 2 are masterpieces and Elton John rates him the best songwriter on the planet. Yet, recently, Wainwright has eschewed the pop world for the world of opera. His second opera Hadrian will premiere soon and the Adelaide Festival premiered his first opera Prima Donna with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in abbreviated form and accompanied by a film directed by Francesco Vezzoli featuring "Po-Mo goddess" Cindy Sherman in the leading role.
The "symphonic visual concert" was a strange brew. The opera concerns the 1971 comeback of opera diva Régine Saint Laurent (Jacqueline Dark) to the stage. Courted by journalist Andre LeTourneur (Andrew Goodwin) and supported by her maid (Eva Kong), Régine's trajectory mirrors the doomed fate of the heroines of the Italian masters Puccini and Verdi and indeed, the structure of the opera is a throwback to those days despite the contemporary setting. The ghost of Maria Callas is never far away and photos and outfits of Callas adorn the film. Indeed, at times, I didn't know where to look. Dark was brilliant vocally and emotionally and it seemed unfair to distract people from the performance. Sherman is a mesmerising visual presence, but the plot of what was already an abbreviated version of the opera seemed to get lost in the spectacle.
Musically, Wainwright paints with a tuneful palette, one that is appropriately Gallic in tone safely bringing to mind the like of Berlioz, Bizet and the chansons of Hahn and Poulenc. Dark sang with fine diction and good colour as did Goodwin. Conductor Guy Simpson brought the best out of all the combined participants. Add to this the appropriation of Philip Glass' repetitive arpeggios and here is safe opera for the masses.
When Wainwright originally "did" Judy at Carnegie Hall in 2006 in typically bold ambitious style, the homage (using the show's original arrangements) was lauded as a grand near miss. However, Wainwright has matured vocally and artistically over the last decade and has grown into the material, giving it his own stamp. While he struggled to match Garland in the same key with Gershwin's Do it Again, he showed that he has the necessary vibrato and power in the more earthy How Long Has this Been Going On and the adult Garland's most famous standard The Man That Got Away, even if Wainwright's sound doesn't soar from the bootstraps like Garland's vocal magic could do at its best.
Local jazz pianist Mark Ferguson provided fine accompaniment on A Foggy Day and Coward's If Love Were All. Finishing with Get Happy took me back to the Norwood concert in 2008 (still my favourite), but Wainwright showed that he has the talent and commitment to wear the ruby slippers with pride. However, the real star of the piece is the arrangements and the overture alone reminded everyone that anyone lucky enough to have bought a ticket for the famous 1961 concert was a blessed member of the human race.