Operagasm Exclusive: NYCO’s Prima Donna at BAM
Prima Donna – Wainwright – NYCO – February 21, 2012 (Additional performances TONIGHT and Saturday)
by Jessica Lennick
I was lucky enough to catch two performances of Prima Donna this week—opening night and Tuesday—and was treated to some beautiful music and wonderful performances, but am still forced to conclude that Prima Donna is the operatic equivalent of Seinfeld. It is an opera about nothing, which nevertheless does “nothing” very well. This slow-moving libretto owes as much a debt to Terrance McNally’s Masterclass as it does to Adriana Lecouvreur, but this opera-about-opera tends to be more homage than plot. Much has been made of this in other reviews, and I can’t find any reason to disagree, however I will say what other reviewers have seemed to forget: that this was an extraordinarily strong first opera. While I could not appreciate the libretto, and while some of the text settings and orchestration could use tweaking, the music itself was emotive and lush, the main themes memorable and very tuneful (one would expect no less from Rufus Wainwright) and I will take a heart-on-the-sleeve approach to opera a thousand times over before I’d endure some paint-by-numbers, look-how-clever-I-can-be academic exercise.
The production itself was beautiful and thoughtful—mining the debt this opera owes to the life of Maria Callas, the set recalled a dilapidated Parisian grandeur with beautiful rococo scrollwork on the walls underneath a grey veneer and a massive fireplace. The lighting design was especially effective; the lighting waxed and waned with the general mood of the piece, and the sunlight streaming through the huge windows dominating the set looked natural and made the singers look fantastic. Another excellent touch was the staging which had Ms. Moore open and close the opera staring out the window at the audience. The fourth wall opened and closed: a perfectly literal stage moment to bookend this valentine to opera.
As a person who has a longstanding personal and professional fascination with Maria Callas, this opera should have appealed to me instinctively, but the libretto quickly paints Madame St. Laurent as such a self-involved diva that she was immediately unlikeable. Directly after the guileless maid Marie begins pouring out her soul about her failing marriage, Madame cuts her off with “Worries? I know about worries,” and continues to regale the audience with her insecurities about an upcoming opera role. Even the winning and gracious stage manner of the very gifted Melody Moore couldn’t overcome the deficiencies of the libretto. However, Ms. Moore’s singing conquered everything else. As Mme St. Laurent, Ms. Moore was required to use nearly every trick in the lyric soprano book – from beautiful floated high notes to meaty, low-lying melodic lines and back again, and she did it all with perfect control. Hers is a beautiful, plush instrument and I was not at all surprised to learn that she is a very much in-demand Mimi. Her physical characterization recalled perfectly the stately divas of the 1970’s and she cycled through the varying corporeal tics of a diva vacillating between private and public spheres, helped along by some accurate and witty costuming. (I’m pretty sure Callas, Caballe, and Nilsson were all photographed in variations of the black dress worn in Act I at some point or another.)
Indeed, NYCO assembled a fine quartet of singers to round out this production. While Randal Turner as the malevolent butler Philippe was given little else to do but bluster and threaten, he managed to imbue the character with a sense of real regret that kept the character from descending completely into the realm of cartoon villainy. Taylor Stayton was also handed a difficult role—an equally impenetrable character (a double-role of the duplicitous journalist who seduces our diva and the opera-within-an-opera role of Henri) plus the added challenge of some viciously high-flying vocal lines. While he managed the difficult tessitura, I was given the impression that there would be more depth and richness to the sound in a less punishing role.
Kathryn Guthrie Demos played Marie with such instinctive and abounding empathy that it was impossible to look away from her. As the only truly sympathetic character in the libretto the audience felt the despair of life in that apartment through her expressive face. Ms. Guthrie Demos was given some of the toughest vocal assignments, from the low-mid register chatter over a full orchestra at the beginning of the opera to the aria opening the second Act—an exposed and delicate set piece that ends on a pianissimo high E—and conquered it all with her silvery voice. In fact, her heartfelt expressiveness and beautiful tone stopped the opera in its tracks for an ovation at both performances—something that didn’t happen at any other time on either night. Marie wound up being the heart of the piece, and Ms. Guthrie Demos was revealed as a force to be reckoned with.
While I have been honest about my skepticism regarding the libretto, I feel that this was a spectacular freshman effort by a composer from whom I’m looking forward to hearing a lot more. Rufus Wainwright has been given a lot of advantages but a traditional conservatory background in composition was not one of them. Given time and thoughtful editing, however, I know that he is capable of creating amazing art. I also cannot say enough how refreshing it was to go to BAM and see this opera being treated like a true cultural and social event. Even if Prima Donna weren’t a solid first effort, it would have been worth it to see opera treated as a thing of such cultural relevance. More than anything else, Prima Donna is about caring too much about opera. If it’s a choice between an enthusiastic, imperfect opera or a clinical exercise in perfect part-writing, frankly, I’d much rather have Prima Donna.
Soprano Jessica Lennick “is a complete package, including a terrific smile and stage presence to go along with her pleasing voice” according to The Baltimore Examiner. She is excited to return to the Caramoor Festival this summer where she will open the season as the Soprano Soloist in Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and cover the role of Giulietta in I Capuleti e i Montecchi. She is looking forward to returning to the Maryland Choral Arts Society as soloist for their 2012 performance of Vaughan-Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem” after singing the Brahms Requiem with them in 2010.
In the spring of 2011 she reprised her role as Die Königin in Die Zauberflöte with Ohio University as a visiting artist. In 2010 she also had the delight of performing Adina in L’elisir d’amore four times in one year in Philadelphia, D.C. and Baltimore. 2010 also saw her role debuts as First Lady and Papagena in Magic Flute, and Spirit in Dido and Aeneus with Center City Opera Theater; Blonde in Enthführung aus dem Serail with Chesapeake Chamber Opera; and Gretel with DC Camerata.
A champion of new music, she premiered the role of Patrick Leahy in the Gonzales Cantata, as well as Gonzales composer Melissa Dunphy’s new song cycle, “Tesla’s Pigeon”. A veteran of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, she also premiered the role of Angeline in Crowded House in 2010 and was delighted to make her third Philly Fringe appearance last fall as part of “Love Lost,” a program of all contemporary music. In April she will debut a new song cycle by Tony Solitro for the Upenn Composer’s Guild.