BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Seasoned composers have written far worse operas than Rufus Wainwright's maiden effort, Prima Donna. Much of the music is simply beautiful. Never does it sound like a cheap pop opera or a series of strung-together songs. It is a true opera.
Yet Prima Donna's U.S. premiere this week by the New York City Opera is generating an operatic tempest with no critical consensus in sight. Popular, charismatic, and breezily audacious, singer/songwriter Wainwright, 38, is either a hero or an interloper, depending on who's listening. But if nothing else, the four well-sold performances at the Brooklyn Academy through Saturday, which attracted teeny-boppers, out-of-town families and hardened Manhattan opera types, are jump-starting the financially beleaguered New York City Opera's current season more than did last week's reportedly tepid season-opener, La Traviata.
The City Opera has done much worse. Remember the 1993 Marilyn (as in Monroe) by Yale faculty composer Ezra Laderman? The far superior Prima Donna has Tim Albery's lush, atmospheric production and a good-to-excellent cast, the best impression made by Academy of Vocal Arts tenor Taylor Stayton. With its 19th-century Gallic manner, the opera seeks to ingratiate.
But as with last season's Seance on a Wet Afternoon by Stephen Schwarz, the piece's constituencies are getting only some of what they come for. For the opera crowd, the territory is all too familiar: Wainwright quotes Tosca, borrows percussion effects from Janacek, and delivers his own version of the famous Der Rosenkavalier trio. The pop-music crowd isn't necessarily in over its head musically but might find the story, steeped in hothouse opera culture, to be odd and foreign.
The plot is Sunset Boulevard rewritten for Maria Callas (without firearms): A once-great soprano - with her imperious self presentation and fallen-goddess vulnerability - emerges from retirement in 1970s Paris, spurred on by her demonically codependent butler and an idolizing journalist who seduces her. The opera also seems to have drawn inspiration from a scene in the biopic Callas Forever in which the diva in retirement is spied, late at night in a candle-lit room, pathetically trying to sing with her own recordings.
Musically, Prima Donna begins with expressive confidence in a heartfelt orchestral prologue as the diva watches the sun come up, and ends with a sublimely beautiful aria of resignation when she realizes her public life is inarguably over.
In between are moments of ineptitude. The opera lingers over some events far too long, doesn't go far enough in others, and has dramatically irrelevant orchestral effects that suggest the composer was trying on sounds for size.
Yet the piece has an extremely alluring essence: Though this opera is far from great, Wainwright has greatness in him, certainly more to offer the classical world than Paul McCartney. Whether or not Wainwright writes another opera (and he should), this experience - Prima Donna premiered in 2009 - seems to have deepened his pop-song art. His 2010 All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, to my ears, stands above his many fine pop albums.
Performance-wise, Melody Moore as the diva effectively animated everything she sang at the Tuesday performance despite her character's limited emotional range. As her Irish maid, Kathryn Guthrie Demos coped with near-impossible tessitura that no soprano should be expected to sing. As the butler, Randal Turner was thanklessly saddled with generating needed dramatic tension. The aforementioned Stayton was a beacon of vocal elegance and text comprehension. Sometimes, a singer's virtues are better noticed with operas in distress.
7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House, Brooklyn, N.Y. Information: 718-636-4100 and www.nycopera.com.
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.