Heads Up: Shakespeare with Wainwright

Shall I compare thee to a classical composer, Rufus?

What are we talking about? A Shakespeare-inspired evening at the Barbican, featuring the UK premiere of singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright's musical setting of five Shakespeare sonnets.

Elevator pitch The expense of spirit as Wainwright meets the Bard.

Prime movers Rory Macdonald conducts. There are also performances of John Adams's Lollapalooza, Erich Korngold's Much Ado About Nothing Suite, Op.11, and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Suite.

The stars Wainwright sings; he's joined by the great actress Siâ* Phillips, who'll also be reading sonnets. The music is performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The early buzz These sonnets had their first outing in San Francisco in 2010; in the programme notes, Wainwright was suitably hyperbolic: "One cannot immerse himself/herself in Shakespeare's sonnets and not be submerged, drowned, and finally resurrected a better human being. They are, hands down, the greatest works ever written." The "one-stop online source for classical music coverage", The Classical Review, wasn't quite convinced, suggesting his settings "show all the traits of solid pop music with accessible melodies and largely skillful word painting. The major issue is the orchestration... The cycle is scored — overscored — for Mahlerian forces ... [distracting] from Wainwright's world-weary vocals."

Insider knowledge It's been a long time coming: back in 2009, Wainwright worked on Shakespeares Sonette, a show featuring 24 sonnets selected by the American avant-garde director Robert Wilson. Three of those – sonnets 10, 20 and 43 – then found their way on to his 2010 album, All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu.

It's great that... he chooses sonnets from across the full 154, giving a sweep through their different themes and tones: from an early "procreation" sonnet (No 10), to three, unsurprisingly, from those addressed to a beautiful young man, the "Fair Youth" (Nos 20, 43 and 87), as well as one of the most shame-sodden "Dark Lady" verses (No 129).

It's a shame that... it's for one night only: you'll have to hustle to get a ticket.

Hit potential Wainwright's opera, Prima Donna, divided critics, but he's diluted here with other works. Dedicated Wainwright fans are sure to swoon.

The details A Shakespeare-Inspired Evening with Rufus Wainwright is at the Barbican, London EC2 (barbican.org.uk), 4 March.

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