Originally intended as a piece for the New York Metropolitan Opera but later dropped due to a dispute over the language of the libretto, Rufus Wainwright’s first full length opera Prima Donna makes its debut, in an Opera North production, as part of this years Manchester International Festival.

Sung in French, the original story concerns faded and forlorn opera singer Regine Saint Laurent (Janis Kelly) who is planning a return to the stage in her most famous role following a six year absence. The reason for her withdrawal from public performance provides the backbone of the plot and as the story progresses all gradually becomes clear. What is less clear, however, are the motives for the planned return to the stage. Is it Madame Saint Laurent herself who desires her comeback or are the plans being driven by her butler and confidante Philippe?

Jonathan Summers plays Philippe, a character with comic and, at times, pantomimic qualities that serve to hide the desperate and unpleasant true nature of his personality. Sadly Summers’ projection sometimes leaves a lot to be desired and it’s a shame that a good portion of his libretto cannot be heard. Philippe is permanently accompanied by his camp and non-singing companion François, played by dancer Steve Kirkham whose flair for physical comedy is evident throughout the evening.

Rebecca Bottone proves hugely successful as Marie, Madame Saint Laurent’s maid and is blessed with a powerful voice and a very large range.

Star of the evening is undoubtedly Janis Kelly. Not only does she sing wonderfully but she also has the stage presence and acting skills to match. Her performance as the deeply scarred and sad Regine is flawless and intense. It’s just a shame that the material she has to work with isn’t in the same league as her performing abilities.

Wainwright’s music has already been likened to that of Puccini and whilst I can just about see how the comparison has been made I think to make such a statement serves as an injustice to Puccini. Wainwright can, no doubt, write pleasing lyrical music and at other times he shows he has a talent for intensely dramatic music, but overall the music for Prima Donna is somewhat lacklustre and unmemorable. There are also moments when the style and tone of the music is in contention with the libretto, which simply adds confusion to proceedings.

Under the direction of Pierre-Andre Valde, the Orchestra of Opera North sound a little off form and, at times, ropey which is unusual for an orchestra of this calibre.

The remainder of the production team, however, have clearly worked in close collaboration to create an excellent production that is far better than the material deserves. Daniel Kramer’s direction is top notch and he ensures that the cast interact with each other and remain deeply in character at all times.

The massive size of the Palace Theatre stage is a real benefit to designer Antony McDonald who has excelled himself with his designs. The set is huge and complex with gigantic moving parts and wonderfully atmospheric drops that wouldn’t look out of place as part of a West End musical. It also brilliantly lit by Peter Mumford.

Whilst it’s always fascinating to witness the world premiere of a major new work within the setting of a first class international festival, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed in Prima Donna. At curtain call Rufus Wainwright was rewarded with a standing ovation, but I don’t think this was warranted. If anyone deserved a standing ovation it was the set designer and Janis Kelly, but despite these positive elements, which should outweigh and counteract the negative, Prima Donna left me cold.

- Malcolm Wallace