posted by Mead Hunter
rufus_wainwright.jpgFrom what Rufus Wainwright told us at TBA:10′s opening event, we have Thomas Lauderdale to thank for conceiving of last night’s wutheringly popular festival kick-off event. Whatever its provenance, the evening was virtually a success before any spectators were even admitted to the cavernous Schnitzer Concert Hall. What’s not to like about an evening with charming pop icon Rufus hanging out with local performance royalty such as Storm Large, Carlos Kalamar and Mr. Lauderdale himself? The audience was happy just to be there. And I was doubly happy to be seated in the orchestra section for the first time (thank you, PICA), instead of bumping my head on the rafters.
When Rufus appeared in a velvet coat of many colors, the roar from the crowd made it evident that they’d come to have a good time. Nevertheless, things got off to an academic start, as the composer explained what we were about to hear for the evening’s first half: scenes from his opera Prima Donna, a work the Met commissioned but declined to produce. First we heard both overtures. The Act I overture began with limpid, muted strains that soon gave way to darker, Mahleresque tones, ultimately moving on to flights of lyricism. Act II’s overture was…..similar.
This was okay. The audience was polite, but you could feel it was biding its time. In due course we got to the vocal sections, including the closing scene performed impressively by Scottish diva Janis Kelly. Here the music became an internalized soliloquy (notwithstanding the implied presence of another character, referred to by Rufus as “the evil journalist”). It was a powerful, affecting moment, probably the point of the entire opera for the composer. That aria alone made me hope that Portland Opera will take a chance and produce the full work, building on the success of last season’s modernist hit, Philip Glass’s Orphée.
Returning to my seat after intermission, the woman next to me said: “Now comes the fun part.” Rufus seemed to agree; he returned to the stage fully prepared to take the house by storm, opening with “Oh, What a World” accompanied by the full Oregon Symphony Orchestra. “What a world my parents gave me,” Rufus crooned, the lyrics taking on a purple tinge in the wake of his well-publicized problems with his famous forebears (Loudon Wainwright III and the late great Kate McGarrigle). But the orchestra overpowered both his voice and his delivery, and it was a relief when he sat down at the piano for the next number.
There were times when his pairing with the Symphony made gorgeous sense — as when “Oh, What a World” weaved its way through Ravel’s Bolero – but let’s face it, the best parts of the evening where when we got Rufus himself, raw and emotional. My concerns going into Leonard Cohen’s shopworn “Hallelujah” was instantly dispelled by the depth of feeling provided first by Rufus and then, in turn, by Janis Kelly and Storm Large. Storm in particular provided a sumptuous counterweight to the song, singing in low, honeyed tones I hadn’t heard from her previously.
The program ended with a sweetly somber song written by Anna McCarrigle, originally intended her sister, entitled “Kitty, Come Home.” Tears streamed down her nephew’s face as sang — his mother died less than nine months ago. But of course following deafening applause and a standing ovation, Rufus returned to the stage with Storm to belt out a tasty mash-up of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days are Here Again.”
It was a fantastic start to TBA:10, looking backward and forward musically, combining the international with outstanding local talent — not a challenging evening, as much of the Festival will be (with any luck), but a fun crazy quilt of past, present, and what Thomas Lauderdale declared as “what I hope for opera.”