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Review of Prima Donna at the New York City Opera

Sorry for my prolonged absence, opera fans, as well as this delay of a review for Rufus Wainright’s first opera, Prima Donna, recently presented by the New York City Opera. Let’s get back down to the nitty gritty of things.

Two Thursdays ago, I was so very fortunate to be able to see Prima Donna live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The entire evening was an emotional and interesting operatic experience, exceeding all my high expectations and making for another fine night of opera. You can read an interview I conducted with Prima Donna’s leading soprano,Melody Moore here. After the interview, it was even more special to hear such an incredible artist live!

Prima Donna begins, with what is cleverly described as a “raindrop” prelude, sounding like a mix between Philip Glass and Verdi. It is however quite good at setting the scene for the opera, and creating a mood for the performance. The curtain opens to the exterior wall of a Parisian apartment, as large, projected raindrops slide down the wall. We see the Prima Donna herself looking out the window at the audience, and when she opens her window is when our story begins.

Regine Saint Laurent was the toast of Paris. She was the leading soprano of her day, until the fateful day when during the premiere of a new opera, Alienor d’Aquitaine, she lost her voice, keeping her cloistered away in her room, until she plans to reappear. She will once more take the stage in the role that she left off at.Until, the arrival of a journalist who brings memories of her past flooding back. She decides she can’t return to the stage, her butler walks out, and Regine abandons this dream of returning to the stage. She dramatically ends her life as a singer, and returns her to the same window she was at in the beginning. To wait for her next step.

With a new opera like this one, nothing is more important than the performance of the vocalists. The performance of the leading vocalists, Melody Moore as Regine, Kathryn Guthrie Demos as Marie, the faithful maid, Taylor Stanton, the journalist for whom Regine’s love causes her breakdown, and Randal Turner as Philippe, the catty butler.

For me, the most outstanding performance of the night was delivered by Melody Moore, in the beautiful role of Regine. She delivered beautiful and effortless high notes, and creamy and beautiful legato lines. She embodied the role of a diva, but destroyed the barriers of stereotypes of opera singers. Her Regine was not catty or unlikeable. This is a testimony to her intense acting talents. The only time Moore seemed to break character was when somebody’s cell phone went off. She glared a second, and returned to her scene without missing a beat.  In the final scene of the opera, Regine returns to her window as she begins her final aria, “Les Feux d’artifice t’appellent”, my personal favorite aria in the opera, and one of the only formally constructed ones. During the middle of the aria, the lights on the scrim in front go dim. Regine steps out of the window on to the stage. When I first saw this, I thought “Here we go… A huge directorial flaw in a mostly perfect performance…” And then, amazement. Ms. Moore was in total control of the stage. The apartment scrim didn’t fade away for the audience to realize that this was Regine’s return to the stage. She was at one with the opera house, the audience, and the music all at once. With many other singers, this could have been a big joke, but in the hands of an expert, it was moving and convincing.

Another one of the highlights of the performance was the butler, who was more of a stereotypical diva than Regine, Philippe. Played by Randall Turner, this role, who we all love to hate, was a fierce portrayal of a man who has been waiting to benefit from an unsuspecting Regine. His facial expression when Regine announced she would be cancelling all her upcoming performances was priceless. He then violently quit Regine’s service in a scene so uncomfortable and emotionally charged you could feel it in the audience. His baritone was also beautiful, with delicate high notes and a deep lower register he put to good use.

The biggest surprise of the evening was that of Kathryn Guthrie Demos, who began the performance, switching from her head voice to her chest voice. She was totally redeemed during her first aria in Act II. She reached extremely high notes with ease and beauty, causing a wild reaction from the audience. Her charming portrayal of a maid, was not just that of a house keeper, but that of a friend or a protector. She begged Philippe to keep the journalist from Regine in Act II, when she realized that his presence was slowly ruining the singer.

Of all the singers, the most disappointing was the tenor Taylor Stanton in the role of Andre, the journalist. During his first arrival, his French was disappointing and he was unable to successfully reach the high notes in the duet scene, where he and Regine reenacted the scene where she lost her voice. Andre seems like higher tenor role, and while Mr. Stanton may not have fit perfectly there, his rich timbre would work better for other, more moderate tenor roles.

There were two silent roles, played by Michelangelo Milano Jr. as Francois, a flower deliverer, and Miranda Calderon as Sophie, Andre’s fiance’ who he conveniently remembers after Regine’ fallen in love with him. The two roles were played convincingly and modestly by the actor and actress.

As a reviewer, I have little to compare Prima Donna’s staging too, but I know it generally appealed to me. The opera was directed by Tim Albery.While some of the entrances and exits through the two doors were disruptive to the plot, (Regine leaves to get dressed through what was the front door) the direction was convincing and theatrical. The ensemble scenes were nicely staged in the apartment. Except for this one. It was a little awkward when they all had the hands on Madame Saint Laurent.

Part of the tragedy of Prima Donna is Regine’s blatant abandonment of her life as a diva. She does this by giving away her recording of Alienor to Marie, as the last autograph she will ever sign, and tearing up pictures of her singing and throwing them into the fire. She burns the pictures in a moving scene. While there aren’t any death’s in this opera, Regine dies inside. She loses the grandeur she once had as a singer, and her illustrious history. When she was burning her pictures, smoke was drifting out into the audience, letting the smell of “lost memories” (I’m calling the smell of smoke that from now on) waft throughout the house. That wasn’t so pleasant.

The sets designed by Anthony McDonald, evoked a tired Paris apartment, but they seemed a slight outlandish for the once toast of the opera world. Philippe said “There used to be a Picasso over the fireplace, until we sold it.”, but it still leaves the peeling of paint on the apartment wall a mystery.

The costumes, also designed by McDonald, were sometimes inspired, but sometimes conformed to stereotypes. Costuming Andre in brown with a taupe scarf and a mailbag was the stereotype of a journalist, while it would have been nice to see Philippe in coattails, as opposed to his blazer and slacks.

In conclusion, Prima Donna was a moving night of opera, and I hope it comes to an opera house near you. Don’t pass up an opportunity to see this moving portrait of an artist.

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