First Night: Prima Donna, Palace Theatre, Manchester

Charming performance fails to rescue flimsy plot

A diva whose voice has been silenced. A soprano haunted by the nightmarish memory of her last appearance. It's a great idea and might easily have made a bittersweet song in the hands of that quirky singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright.

The trouble is, it's actually the basis of his first opera, Prima Donna and this flimsy plot is spun out into a cheesy piece of full-length music theatre. The only surprise was was that Wainwright didn't create a part for himself, the primo uomo having made a grand entrance into the theatre dressed up as Verdi, with a beard grown for the occasion, his companion making a remarkably realistic Puccini.

The buzz was palpable before the curtain rose. Flanked by his sister Martha and mother Kate McGarrigle, Wainwright, basking in flash photography, seemed in no doubt as to who was the star of this show. With no cast list in the printed programme, it seemed as though the singers were relegated to bit parts in the Wainwright show.

In fact Janis Kelly was superb as the prima donna, Regine, stitching something almost striking out of insubstantial material. Shimmering and stratospheric, Rebecca Bottone made a charming maid, singing longingly of her native Picardie. Pierre-André Valadi conducted the orchestra of Opera North who did its best with a score utterly lacking in dramatic pace. Director Daniel Kramer had clearly tried to invest some drama into the action. Wacky costumes and evocative sets were garishly lit.

The libretto, co-written by Wainwright and Bernadette Colmine, was in French. It wouldn't have much mattered in what language Prima Donna was sung, the surtitles simply revealed the paucity of the absurd unfolding tale of operatic woe. When New York's Met backed off from its commission, Manchester International Festival, snapped it up. In collaboration with Sadler's Wells, and with the involvement of Opera North, Prima Donna was hotly tipped to be a worthy successor to Damon Albarn's Monkey premiered at the 2007 Manchester Festival.

Musically Prima Donna is at best banal, at worst boring. The orchestral writing is lumpy, leaden and repetitive, so that the merest flash of inspiration – a dashing musical signature for example – is welcomed with relief as an original idea. Wainwright didn't need to pay homage to all those dead composers he adores by including so many fragments of their scores in his own opera.

Regina is dominated by a sleazy, bullying, Mephisto-type butler, well-characterised by Jonathan Summers. When she finally gets rid of him and his overbearing pressure on her to sing again, her life seems as if it might take a happier turn. But no, the singer-turned-journalist (a game William Joyner) who has unexpectedly awakened love in her heart again, appears with a strange woman (his fiancée) in traditional Japanese costume. In a curious twist of the Madam Butterfly situation, he takes away the diva's hope. Until, that is, the fireworks (it is Bastille Day in Seventies Paris) reminds her of her patriotic duty, to the strains of La Marseillaise. A curtain across the stage shows a woman, open-mouthed, screaming. By the end of Prima Donna, I knew how she felt.

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