At the Auckland Arts Festival American-Canadian singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Guy Simpson at the Aotea Centre displayed two very different sides of the musician’s oeuvre.
Act I was Prima Donna: A Symphonic Visual Concert, a staged performance of part of Wainwright’s French language opera with a background film made by artists Cindy Sherman and Francesco Vezzoli.
Soprano Madison Nonoa, playing Marie the maid, kicked off the show with her only lead: ‘Dans mon pays de Picardie’. The lyrics compare 1970 Paris with her home town of Picardy in Northern France. It’s a shame Nonoa didn’t get another shot at soaking in the limelight. Her light, warm, crisp tones sold the story the surtitles were telling and the otherwise cautious audience responded with rapturous applause.
Filipe Manu as journalist André Le Tourner and Madeleine Pierard as the show’s recovering diva Régine Saint Laurent were solid in a solid work. Opera deals in the realm of heightened emotions and although Prima Donna often has those emotions on display it fails to embody them. André and Régine sing of “overwhelming love” but they and the orchestration seemed perfectly whelmed.
Wainwright and co-librettist Bernadette Colomine gain some sparkle when humour infects their lyrics. Marie sings about Picardy residents braiding hair while those in Paris are more focused on people’s derrière. André casually mentions to a besotted Régine that he needs to meet with his fiancé then follows this with the twist of the knife that is him asking her to sign a copy of her album. Madeleine Pierard hammed it up a treat on ‘Vocalises’ when she gamely played into the absurdly of the diva’s vocal exercises. These moments jolt you because they are funny and human in an opera that is often rather self-serious.
Special shout out to Auckland Philharmonia harpist Rebecca Harris whose delicate plucking really stood out when she was in play.
Prima Dona along with season 3 of TV series Mozart in The Jungle means that it only took until March this year for me to officially meet a storyline quota for the calendar year. I’m fine for plots that follow operatic sopranos looking at making a comeback for the moment. Thanks culture!
The second act shifted the mood by featuring Rufus Wainwright fronting the APO to perform a set drawing from Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall. Like Marie in Prima Donna; Garland was on the comeback trail and on that magic night she was firing on the majority of cylinders.
The album clearly was fascinating to a young Rufus Wainwright who went on to recreate the album in 2006 at the very same venue that Judy had shined so bright.
Wainwright returned to the Aotea Centre stage in a sparkly ruby red suit with long coattails and slippers as a tribute to Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Classics like ‘Zing! Went The Strings of My Heart’, ‘The Trolley Song’, and ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’ were approached dramatically with zeal and flair.
It’s an odd hall of mirrors at times. Rufus covering Rufus covering Judy singing songs she had no hand in composing. Even the patter of the record is reflected. There’s some choice comment on ‘San Francisco’ where he claims it as a dig against Judy’s opera influenced contemporary Jeanette MacDonald.
Wainwright took one opportunity to break out of the grasp of Garland and show his songwriting chops with his composition ‘Forever and a Year’ from Adelaide Festival’s Co-Artistic Director Neil Armfield’s film Holding The Man. The melancholic and sentimental song fit well with the gems from the American songbook on offer.
Wainwright dedicated the Gerswhin number ‘Foggy Day’ to the memory of his friend: the actor Carrie Fisher. Like his initially acappella rendition of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ it was one of the most intense moments in the night.
The singer had lost himself. Music and memory remained.
- Shaun D Wilson