Opening Night Of TBA 10: with Rufus Wainwright and the Oregon Symphony

The first time I saw Rufus Wainwright he was just a boy with his piano singing his heart out and charming the pants off his audience (I think literally so for a couple of his smitten fans). That was in 1998. Twelve years on and he’s still charming, singing and playing, but inevitably, there’s some taint on the dazzle. No doubt he’s still a very engaging presence and a gifted composer/lyricist, but to judge by last night’s dirge, sorry, I meant TBA Festival opening night extravaganza at the Schnitz, Mr. Wainwright’s celebrity is starting to impinge on his talent.
The first half of the evening was dedicated to Wainwright’s opera PRIMA DONNA which had its debut at the Manchester International Festival back in July of 2009. The opera had a decidedly mixed reception (I’ve yet to find a truly positive review) and would certainly never have been produced if not for Wainwright’s celebrity. Most critics acknowledged Wainwright’s pop gifts and occasional successful flourish, but on the whole dismissed it as slight and unoriginal. Last night the Oregon Symphony led by Carlos Kalmar, with the soprano Janis Kelly and Megan someone (whose name Wainwright couldn’t quite remember nor did she merit a program mention) performed excerpts from the opera to a somewhat tepid reception. In the snippets performed (an overture or two and a handful of scenes) the opera seems to be something of a pastiche, a little Ravel, a pinch of Puccini, some Massenet, some Strauss, and fleetingly Wainwright himself. Admittedly we only heard excerpts, but even so, it lacked momentum, dramatic urgency, a cohesive style. Most disappointing though was the libretto. I’ve always been a huge fan of Wainwright’s lyrics, at once witty and ironic yet filled with longing and romance. Sadly, none of those qualities are evident in the libretto for PRIMA DONNA (co-written with Wainwright by Bernadette Colomine). The Met famously pulled out of producing PRIMA DONNA when Wainwright refused to write the lyrics in English. Reading the banal super-titles last night, I’d say Wainwright made the right decision. On the plus side, Janis Kelly sang beautifully as the prima donna though much of the part was too low in her register (she also looked appropriately fetching in her black diva dress). Megan whatshername, as the maid, was fine, though a little harsh in her approach (and in her dress – bad prom reject). And while I realize that this is just a staged presentation and not the real deal, it was bit hard to believe in La Kelly’s divahood when she sat during an orchestral passage and swigged from a bottle Poland Springs. Was a pitcher and glass too much to ask for? The intermission could not have come soon enough.
Back from a bathroom break and Rufus was ready to entertain, or maybe just to be adored. Opening with one of my favorites, Oh, What a World, a song that wends its way into a mash-up with Ravel’s Bolero, Rufus looked a little bored and Kalmar didn’t help matters with his sluggish accompaniment. Finally, oh finally, Rufus sat down at the piano and sang the gorgeously simple Vibrate, a song filled with wit and longing and romance. Perfection. Really. Gorgeous. But then came Little Sister from WANT TWO, and, not perfection (Rufus, Kalmar and the symphony again not quite in sync). Then Rufus struggled through two songs from the Berlioz song cycle Nuit d’ete – heart-felt, but under-prepared. Rufus talked some nonsense about this being an open rehearsal and that we were all part of the process. Really? a hundred and twenty bucks to watch you rehearse? bullshit. I couldn’t help but think of Susan Graham’s amazing performance of these same songs with The Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall in 2003. Then things really got irritating.
Rufus has been peddling his lame Judy Garland show for a while now, and it’s got to stop. If you want to challenge yourself and push your artistic boundaries by exploring this legendary concert and performance, by all means, do so. But I don’t see any evidence of exploration. Singing the same arrangements in the same keys shows that you can read music and have an admirable vocal range, but it doesn’t show any emotional connection to this music or, truth be told, any real affinity for the performance of it. Judy Garland rarely closed her eyes when she sang. Her connection to the music and to her audience was heart-breaking and profound; an emotional honesty that is rare to nonexistent in these days of ironic commentary. Rufus closes his eyes a lot. He doesn’t ever really let us in. He’s funny and charming, yes, but we never see inside; he’s never heart-breaking, he’s too busy commenting on his performance, winking at us, letting us in on the joke. It’s all irony all the time. One gay icon aping another. Basically it’s one long, really long, ironic joke. Look, I’m a gay man singing Judy Garland’s songs. Isn’t it ironic? ha ha ha ha. Yeah, it’s ironic, and also a huge bore. You don’t even care enough to learn the words. And asking the audience to sing along, really? Most of that audience only knows your fucked up versions of those songs, if they know them at all. When Garland sang her so slow rendition of You Made Me Love You she looked directly into her audience, sometimes sitting on the edge of the stage and singing to a single individual – incredibly intimate and open. Rufus didn’t look at us once. And The Man That Got Away (next to Over the Rainbow, Garland’s signature song), a jazz infused heart-breaking opera when delivered by Garland, is just another ironic joke to Rufus (and none too funny with Kalmar’s dirge-like accompaniment.) I beg you, rent A STAR IS BORN and fast forward to Judy singing this number in an after-hours jazz club with a 5 piece combo and you’ll understand what a genius performer she truly was. I think Rufus Wainwright is a profoundly gifted individual, but his celebrity is starting to get the best of him (now there’s an ironic Garland parallel worth pursuing). There was some more to the show, but nothing really of note. And then of course, this being Portland, a standing ovation ended the night. Whatever. I guess if your “cutting edge” arts festival wants to open with a night of drag karaoke you’ll probably consider this a success. I just wish there’d been an open bar.