Callas Forever Returns as Prima Donna


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In August 2003, just a few weeks I came over to the UK, I went to the screening of a film I thought I wanted to see. I’ve long loved the genius of Franco Zeffirelli, and I also loved classical music, opera in particular. Zeffirelli’s then latest feature, Callas Forever, was screened as a part of the programme of the annual Moscow International Film Festival.

As can be deducted from the title, the film was about Maria Callas. Or better, it was a fictional account of her final years. Zeffirelli, renowned for his work on opera productions, was very close with Callas, so he naturally tasked himself with commemorating her on screen. The story saw Callas (Fanny Ardant), living a recluse in a Parisian flat, her voice and Onassis lost, when she is reunited with her former manager, Larry Kelly (Jeremy Irons), who is determined to bring Callas out of her seclusion and to restore her legacy. With this in mind, he sets out to produce a lavish screen adaptation of Carmen, with Callas starring in it and lip-syncing to her own glorious recording.

As the film develops, so do innumerable relationships. Aside of Callas’s film, Larry Kelly is managing his love affair with a young artist. Callas is managing more than just the loss of her voice: Onassis left her for Jackie Kennedy, so a woman’s tragedy adds to the tragedy of the artist. Despite the pain it causes her, Callas stores the newspapers clips about her ex-husband and his new wife. While she is working on the film, she develops a certain passion for a co-actor, a young handsome man who is keen to use his relationship with Callas to advance his own career.

The feature itself is a film in a film, or better, an opera in opera. Towards the middle of the film the highly charged human relationships begin to be interspersed with extracts from a would-be adaptation of Carmen. This is where Zeffirelli’s long experience of working on opera productions shines through most brightly: one of the opening scenes of this “inner” film bedazzles the viewer with pure gold that downpours from the screen and spills over onto the audience. But Carmen will never be: in the end, Callas asks Kelly to destroy it, and he cannot say “no”…

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It’s July 2009, and I go to the Palace Theatre in Manchester to listen to Rufus Wainwright‘s first opera. It is called Prima Donna, and I have no expectations whatsoever. And in the middle of the first half I realise that, almost six years later, I am watching the musical version of Callas Forever. I didn’t buy a programme upon arrival but when we learnt that the protagonist was due to sing her renowned Aliénor, a beautiful recording of which existed, my realisation was complete. And if Rufus is surprised to read this, then so was I surprised to arrive to such conclusion. The rest of the work only convinced me.

In Prima Donna, the protagonist is a fading opera singer, Régine Saint Laurent (Janis Kelly), living a recluse in Paris in 1970. She has problems with her voice; she has been out of the public eye for six years; and her butler, Philippe (Jonathan Summers), is determined to get her back out on stage. He’s even arranged for a journalist, André (William Joyner), to do an interview. The journalist, however, used to be an opera student, with the aspiration for a tenor career. Quick passion ignites; and then we find out exactly what caused Regine to withdraw from stage and to lose her voice. Philippe is arranging for her to sing a part from the opera Aliénor (of which a great recording exists), in which she starred six years ago. Back then Régine was in love with her stage partner – not realising that she was a part of a love triangle, and eventually being violently confronted by the truth. It is this truth that caused both withdrawal from stage and the loss of the voice. Her possible hope – the journalist André – pays another visit, but this time brings his fiancee (called Sophie and dressed like Madame Butterfly). Following Philippe’s leave and André’s revelation, the singer finally decides to leave the stage. The final act of an artist that Regine performs is the signing of her albums, one for André, another for her faithful maid, Marie. Another faithful servant, François, gets the signature on his chest. Having sent everyone away, Régine watches the fireworks on the occasion of the Bastille Day, contemplating the shortness of the life’s festival.

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As with Zeffirelli’s film, I am hugely impressed with scenography, costumes, and lighting design of Prima Donna. The work of everyone who worked on this production, starting with Alan Poots who commissioned it, cannot be faulted. This is a modern opera, and thus classical overtures fare along with the occasional bar-style mannerism. Janis Kelly who often has to perform as if her voice breaks, is astounding, as is Rebecca Bottone (Marie). I really wouldn’t want to go into any other connotations Rufus would bring with him – for, if this is music (or opera for that matter), it must transcend all personal experiences, if it is to be understood by, and most importantly if it is to influence, people. At the same time, it is his first opera, and I would certainly not want it to be the last, although I’d like him to put a different subject to music.

My only “problem” is therefore this striking similarity between the stories of Prima Donna and Callas Forever. Maybe I wouldn’t find it too striking if the story told by Zeffirelli was, well, a novel written, published, and read by many. But as it seems, Zeffirelli’s story was as original as it was fictional, a film script, so to see it making the storyline to Prima Donna is strange, to say the least. In the interviews with Rufus that I was able to watch, he mentions Callas but says no word about Zeffirelli. And in my view, the similarities are too obvious to be a coincidence.

And this is not to deny that Rufus wanted to concenrate on other “sides” to this story. E.g. when should a performer resolve that enough is enough, and to exit gracefully? Or to what extent Love rules not only the world but talent, too? But was the latter not the question that can be asked of Callas’s life? Did Onassis leave her because she lost her voice? Or did she never regain the voice because her love was betrayed?

I am asking myself what my impression of Prima Donna would be, had I not had the “baggage” of six years ago that forced itself upon? Taking everything together, the impression would be good, although I wish some lines wouldn’t be so simple or repetitive. But the baggage is there, and it’s just too obvious for me to ignore it.

Having thus broken the ground, Rufus, I’d expect, may compose a rock opera and/or a musical: looking at the examples of Quadrophenia, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Phantom of the Opera, Notre Dame de Paris, and Cats, these genres will surely fit everything he seems to want to bring on stage. But if he chooses to work on classical opera, I’d like to see him try something less lavish, more restrained as in his score for one of Shakerspeare’s sonnets. (And do some research or ask someone to do it for him, as to the subject or storyline).

P.S. It feels extraordinarily weird to say this, but I couldn’t help hearing a hint to Michel Legrand’s (or Barbra Streisand’s) theme from Yentl, Papa Can You Hear Me?, in the overture to Prima Donna. It isn’t a copy, but again the similarity is strong. As mankind’s becoming older, it becomes harder to be totally original… but musically, as stylistically, this may indicate some curious influences.

If you’re based in the UK and haven’t seen Alan Yentob’s Imagine series about Rufus Wainwright, you can watch it on the BBC iPlayer. If you’re not in the UK, you may be able to download the file.

Other posts in Manchester International Festival.

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