Rufus Wainwright reinvents Judy Garland

Prima Donna: A Symphonic Visual Concert
Composer: Rufus Wainwright
Libretto: Rufus Wainwright and Bernadette Colomine
Video: Francesco  Vezzoli and Cindy Sherman

Rufus Does Judy
Rufus Wainwright
Auckland Arts Festival
Aotea Centre

This week Auckland audiences got two concerts from Rufus Wainwright. One was a streamlined version of his opera Prima Donna, the other a song fest of Wainwright singing Rufus Does Judy.

Prima Donna with music by Wainwright has a French libretto, which he co-wrote with Bernadette Colomine. It is focused on his invented opera diva, Régine Saint Laurent, who is preparing for her return to the stage after years of silence. She is forced to confront the ghosts of her past, reflecting on her early years of triumph and on her past and present struggles with confidence and anxiety. She also unwittingly falls in love with a young journalist, further exposing her status as a grand diva.

It could be read as a semi-autobiographical work, with the singer reflecting on the likelihood of his own fading glory. On stage, however, he certainly wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down although he did need to adjust his cummerbund a few times to hold things in.

The music was a mixture of the minimalism of John Adams, the modernism of Karl Jenkins with a dash of Puccini. There were also passages that could have been lifted from Canteloube. This combination of styles created a melodramatic ambience which the singers elaborated on.

In the lead role, Madeleine Pierard delivered an exceptional performance, her powerful voice delivering some surging emotional moments. Singing arias such as “In this lush and magnificent garden,” she invested the song with feelings of love and death, sadness and joy.

She was well supported by Madison Nonoa, as her maid Maria, who opened the evening with a captivating voice while Filipe Manu as young journalist Andre Letourneur matched Pierard in terms of vocal intensity while managing to be a foil for her extravagant emotionalism.

The “visual” element to the work was provided by a back projected film by Italian director Francesco Vezzoli, which featured artist Cindy Sherman appearing in an apartment filled with the memorabilia of the diva. It was a clever addition but didn’t seem to make the most of Sherman and her ability to create multiple personas. There was also a curious occasional disconnect between the live action and the filmed material

The second half of the concert saw Wainwright channelling Judy Garland as he recreated or imagined her 1961 Carnegie Hall performance. He even dressed for the occasion with a sparkling red suit and a pair of red “Wizard of Oz” shoes.

This part of the concert was full of some of the great numbers of mid-twentieth century with songs by Harold Arlen,  lyrics by Yip Harburg (Over the Rainbow), George Gershwin (A Foggy day in London Town) and Irving Berlin (Puttin’ on the Ritz).

Each of the songs had a story or a relevance for Wainwright, each had a personal connection such as his memorial to Carrie Fisher with Noel Coward’s If Love Were All and his tribute to Jeanette MacDonald's San Francisco where he carries off the singer’s exuberance.

His Over the Rainbow was an elegant, polished version, his voice bringing a genuine clarity and authentic to the piece.

He belted out his numbers with an effortless energy as well as breathlessly dealing with others. With his own composition, Forever and a Year, he expressed his own brand of melancholia.

Setting himself up to replicate one of the great concerts of the 20th century and put himself on a par with one of the great legends of the music industry was a big task but Wainwright had all the skills; a great voice, fabulous style, and a quirky mix of the comic and gravitas to pull it off.