The scene is a Paris atelier in 1970, where acclaimed soprano Regine Saint Laurent (Janis Kelly) has retreated for the six years since her career-climaxing performance in the premiere of Alienor d’Aquitaine as the queen of England and France. She performed the role once, then fled from the stage, unable to hit her final note in the climactic love duet.
In the grip of nightmares and surrounded by a domineering majordomo, Philippe (Jonathan Summers), who is a Josef von Sternberg from Sunset Boulevard with greater self-interest and malevolence and a neon green suit, and her new maid, fresh from the provinces, Marie (Rebecca Bottone), Regine prepares to return to the stage to sing Alienor once more.
A journalist (William Joyner) comes to interview her, but ends up singing the duet with her though she cannot reach her final note still and stirring up her memories of the fateful performance from which she did not recover. He also releases in her long-dormant passions which promise to revive and threaten to undo Regine.
As you would expect – and hope – Prima Donna combines the very best that nineteenth-century Italian opera and twenty-first century theatre have to offer, with a sophisticated, harmonious score, a fantastical, lurid, inventive set and almost more irony and reflexivity than one stage can take.
Wainwright and director Daniel Kramer run with this reflexivity. As well as writing an opera about an opera singer who sings about being afraid to sing, Wainwright even gets his revenge on Puccini: when the journalist, whom Regine has fallen for, returns with his fiancé, she is Madame Butterfly. She may not sing, but the kimono says it all: this time Butterfly wins. It is a brilliant, overwhelming touch, indicative of Wainwright’s love of opera and sense of humour, but perhaps also of the problems of this opera.
The metatheatrical cleverness at points confuses. In the second act, when Regine plays the record of her singing the climactic duet from Alienor, we disappear into almost a dream-sequence where the original production plays out on stage, complete with Regine and the king (played by the journalist, of course), a common play-within-a-play motif. This creates the beautiful irony that while she sings the notes on stage she cannot sing on stage, it is only as a recording – yet it is a live ‘recording’.
After she is done, the curtain falls and Regine takes several bows, accepting flowers, while the real audience applauds. This draws us into the conceit but breaks the illusion of the opera entire and disturbs the drama. Also, Regine hitting her note in the recording should be a triumphant moment (in an ironic mode), but it does not fulfil the expectation of the note created to that point.
The set moves from darkened, bare apartment, to theatre-within-a-theatre, with the maid and majordomo taking up their seats to watch Regine and the journalist, complete with its own proscenium and red curtain. Towards the end of the second act, where Regine’s world starts collapsing, all of the sets collide: bed, record-sequence table laden with candles, apartment window, dayglo kitchen, red curtain.
A less ambiguous problem than Pirandellian tricks is the lack – for want of a better word – of a tune, a single outstanding aria for Regine. You would think that after a century of Callas and Gheorghiu and Netrebko, Wainwright would want to offer his leading lady something to get her teeth into, but the closest he comes is the beautiful, baleful lament of Marie that ‘Paris is not Picardie’, where she sings of the recklessness of metropolitan love (a recurring theme of Wainwright’s). It is a shame that I came out of the theatre whistling Vissi d’arte.
Nevertheless, Regine is given the whole final sequence, once the butler and the maid have been banished and she has decided, Dietrich-like, on solitude henceforth. She emerges onto her terrace, high above Paris (for a moment I thought Wainwright was going to have her Tosca herself), to watch the Bastille Day fireworks, and sings from the joy of the fireworks and from her new freedom. This is a triumphant scene: the staging has all fallen away apart from her windows and terrace, set against a screen which changes colours with the fireworks, and the music fizzles and sighs and pops with the fireworks, a passage of outstanding imagination and sophistication and (simply) beauty. Kelly’s voice is free, yet falters as she confronts her future, moving around her repeated phrases with a fawn’s tentativeness, eventually emerging into golden confidence.The score as a whole is a masterpiece of sophistication, with all the lessons of the great Italians learnt. (Indeed, Wainwright took his bow dressed as Verdi, complete with beard.) This will not come as a surprise to extant fans of Wainwright, who have heard everything from chamber quartet (Leaving for Paris II) to Mass (Agnus Dei) to three orchestras at once (I Don’t Know What It Is), but that he maintains his grasp of orchestration for a full opera, overture, arias and two acts, ensuring complex melodies and individual lines across the instruments, creating a delicate score which surges with passion and retreats with regret, is a triumph.
Writing an opera in the late nineteenth-century Italian mode is today revolutionary in its conservatism, but Wainwright was not simply content to produce a pastiche: with his twenty-first century eye for irony, his wit and the beauty of his music, he has done his forebears proud and produced an opera which – with some work – will endure.