Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Wainwright Week - Prima Donna and All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu

I've had the chance to indulge my love of all things Rufus Wainwright this week, thanks to a the triple-whammy of the new production of his opera Prima Donna at Sadler's Wells, the new album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, and finally his latest live show.

Let's start with that opera. The first thing to make clear is that it's my first, and I can't claim to know anything about the artform - as such, I'm simply having to analyse it like I would a musical, which would probably send a shiver down the spine of any purist. But on the basis of the elements on which I can offer an opinion - story, character, lyrics - I can tentatively come to the conclusion that this is far from a 'great' opera. The story follows a day in the life of a once-celebrated opera singer on the eve of her come-back performance, all of the anxiety and memory that that evokes, and how she is pushed, pulled and advised by an ambitious butler, fawning journalist and empathetic maid.

The beautiful music portrays all of this angst, but what is disappointing - especially for a Rufus Wainwright fan who has long been in awe of his imagery and complexity of language - is the lack of invention in the lyrics. I was prepared for the "would you like a cup of coffee" type lines that often get a bashing from opera-haters, but there was such scope for the emotion and clever imagery that make Wainwright such a brilliant songwriter. These lyrics though were, it pains me to say, often on the prosaic side, and that meant that it was hard to get swept away with the story. The stunning soprano who plays the maid - Rebecca Botton - positively outshines her leading lady, and is well-served by a beautiful, witty solo which reminds you of the genius behind this opera, but overall I felt that the production was a little 'under-cooked'. And believe me, that is not something I thought I would ever say about a piece that has emerged from Rufus's mind.

Of course, if it's angst you want then you really need look no further than his latest LP - All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. Written during his late (great) mother Kate McGarrigle's illness, this piano-and-voice album is thoughtful, sombre and elegaic. Not all of the songs are as openly about Rufus's fear and grief as Martha, in which he asks his sister whether she has been to see Kate or their father, or Zebulon where he literally talks about his mother being in hospital, but sadness pervades the album completely. It's a very different beast to his earlier works then, and not immediately accessible - but the musicianship, especially on the majestic The Dream is sublime and you get the feeling that its beauty will be revealed through repeated listens.

Rufus performs the album in full as the first half of his new live show, following an announcement that he would like the audience to refrain from applause until he has left the stage. The idea, he tells us in the second half, is to give a pop audience the chance to experience the atmosphere of a classical concert, but combined with his funereal black lace-and-feathers outfit, it's clear that it is also meant to be respectful tribute to Kate. Just as she is ever-present in the album, the second half - still just him and the grand piano - starts with Beauty Mark, and ends with Kate's own The Walking Song.

In between there is a little more levity - though the lack of a band means that the bombast of I Don't Know What It Is and 14th Street are missing - and Rufus's usual cheekiness comes out as he celebrates the plethora of "pretty boys" Sheffield has to offer. This style of show means that some of Rufus's most beautiful piano-led songs - Poses, The Art Teacher, Going To A Town and the heartbreaking Dinner At Eight - get a live airing, while this version of Grey Gardens, normally laden with vocals and orchestration, only serves to further highlight its brilliance.

Of course, Rufus's over the top campery is part of what makes him so wonderful, and so you might think that this show would be lacking in some way. But 50 minutes of applause-less music is actually pure theatre and the songs in the second half - their craft laid bare - shine brighter than ever.

1 comment:

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

That's really cool to read your review, which kind of echo my sense of things in Rufus land at the moment. I think the opera was a brave idea, but everything I have read, heard or seen in tghe media coverage (including clips) hasn't suggested it really works as opera - not least for what you say about the lyrics, because lathough RW is musically genius what make things really work for me is when the music and lyrics come together.

Which brings me to your live review: interesting about the applause-less first half and that being band-less lets the composition of some of his quiter tracks shine through. I'm sorry I've not been able to organise myself to get to his local gig.