A Review by Nino Pantano
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BROOKLYN — Composer Rufus Wainwright originally planned his Prima Donna to premiere at the Metropolitan Opera a few years ago, but he wanted it sung in French. The Met wanted it in English, and that, as they say, was that!
The New York City Opera (NYCO) took the Prima Donna project, and the American premiere took place at the Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on Sunday, Feb. 19.
General Manager and Artistic Director George Steel of NYCO and the unions finally came to a settlement, and Fiorello LaGuardia’s “People’s Opera” opened its new season at BAM with Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata.
I attended Prima Donna on the evening of Feb. 21 with two prominent Brooklynites — Don Yule, NYCO basso for 50 years, and Maurice Edwards, who served as conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra and whose book on this orchestra is a classic.
The score of Prima Donna has many moments of exquisite beauty and evokes Richard Strauss with its soaring ensembles. The simple story, seemingly inspired by the fate of opera soprano Maria Callas, deals with a former prima donna, Regine Saint Laurent, who has been a recluse in her Paris apartment since she suddenly retired six years before after playing the lead in Aliénor D’Aquitaine. Something marred that performance — was it vocal failure?
It is now Bastille Day 1970. Her manservant and lady in waiting have been loyal and faithful to her. She is interviewed about a rumored “comeback” by a young reporter, Andre le Tourneur, who is also an admirer, and he encourages her to return to the stage. The plot ricochets between fantasy and reality, and the handsome reporter, Andre, wins and woos her. In a dream sequence, he sings opposite her in her comeback as Aliénor D’Aquitaine.
In the final act, Andre returns with his young fiancée, like Kate Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. That night, after the couple has left, the shattered Regine Saint Laurent walks out like Tosca on a precarious ledge during fireworks celebrating Bastille Day.
The ending evokes the finale of Charpentier’s opera Louise. The difference is that Louise is liberated from an oppressed existence and is now a free young woman with her lover celebrating the vibrancy of youth and independence with all of Paris at night beckoning her. Regine Saint Laurent is just the opposite, with only the past, no future, and love reduced to embers. Indeed, before “walking the plank,” Mme. Saint Laurent, resigned to her fate, symbolically snuffs out all the candles in her apartment.
Regine Saint Laurent was sung by Melody Moore in a virtual tour de force. Her sumptuous soprano negotiated this complex vocal terrain with truth and dignity. Ms. Moore’s singing in the duet with Andre was rhapsodic, and her downward spiral was tinged with madness. Her singing of “Quand J’etais Jeune Etudiante” (“When I Was a Young Student”) in the final act and “Feu D’artifice” (“Fireworks”) captured the heart. Ms. Moore’s (St. Laurent’s) ascent to the plank extending from the balcony had the audience mesmerized.
Kathryn Guthrie Demos, in the part of her chambermaid, sang a poignant song called “Paris and Picardie” comparing the larger city to her humble village. Her stratospheric coloratura flights reminded one of Strauss’s Zerbinetta. “Paris and Picardie,” with its simplicity and ravishing melody, touched us all deeply and earned Demos an ovation.
Andre le Tourneur was beautifully sung by Taylor Stayton. His high tenor had plenty of reserve and power, and his subtle seduction and conquest of his aging and depressed prima donna made him a redeeming sort of devil, but not even he could become a safety rope for her.
Philippe, Mme. St. Laurent’s manservant, was like Erich von Stroheim’s character Max in Sunset Boulevard gone wild. But unlike Max, the faithful servant to Norma Desmond in the famous film, Philippe’s love and loyalty became hatred and rage. In a denunciation scene, he was a hair’s breadth away from killing her. Randal Turner’s powerful baritone and vitriolic acting gave the audience quite a thrill.
The sprightly Sophie of Miranda Calderon was properly naïve and wise. Michelangelo Milano Jr. was a handsome Francois.
The score was composed by Rufus Wainwright, and the strong libretto is also by Wainwright in collaboration with Bernadette Colomine.
The New York City Opera Orchestra was brilliantly conducted by Jayce Ogren. The principal harpist, Lynette Wardle, deserves kudos as do all the splendid musicians who played this lush score with such passion.
Tim Albery, assisted by Joanna Turner, gave us a subtle and eerie production that works very well. The finale, with its superimposed fireworks, view of Paris at midnight and the distraught prima donna, was brilliant. Thomas C. Hase’s lighting was flawless. Antony McDonald’s sets and costumes were eye-catching and evoked the right mood.
The audience stomped and cheered when Wainwright came out for a bow.
The air of a truly splendid evening at the opera prevailed as the crowd spilled out into the street and filled the outside of the Brooklyn Academy of Music with the unbounded energy of a night to remember.