Review: Rufus Wainwright, dreaming big and delivering

Rufus Wainwright. Photo: Matthew Welch

Rufus Wainwright made his debut with the National Arts Centre Orchestra on Wednesday night and the effect was lush, lyrical and typically bravura.

Wainwright is the kind of artist who writes and performs with intelligence and sophistication, with savoir faire. He is also always reaching for some bigger hill to climb.

The man, after all, just had his opera Prima Donna performed in Paris. And he’s hard at work on a second opera centred on Hadrian, he of the famous wall across northern Britain, who is left grief-stricken following the death of his young lover Antinous. It will debut in 2018 at the Canadian Opera Company.

The performance in Southam Hall Wednesday night was classic Wainwright, full of thoughtful touches such as opening with NACO playing the overture from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. The music world is getting ready to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth in 2018. Another piece of sophistication that showed off NACO was to open the second half of the evening with Sibelius’ Valse Triste. He also has an album of Shakespeare’s sonnets put to music. He played one, Sonnet 20, which many scholars say indicates the Bard’s homosexuality.

This was a laid back Wainwright looking at ease  in a black sport jacket and jeans and sporting a new beard. The look, he told the audience, is because he is writing an opera and wants to look like a composer. As well, he joked, he can wear jeans if he has a beard. He might have been more relaxed, but his sharp sense of humour was always nearby.

It surfaced again when the Canada150 ambassador offered a heartfelt thank you to Canada because he is now living in California and, while he said he knows Canada has problems, it’s nothing like the nightmare that is happening south of the border, he says. And then he ripped into the song called Going To A Town which includes the line: I’m So Tired of America. It was written while George W. Bush was president. But it seems to fit this time and the new Republican in the White House.

Wainwright, who was born in the U.S. and raised in Montreal sang moving tributes to his father Loudon Wainwright III, who often sports a beard himself, and Kate McGarrigle, of the McGarrigle Sisters who passed away seven years ago.

And he also ranged through his song library pulling out some poignant classics: Poses, Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, The Art Teacher and Tiergarten, which he says was written about falling in love with his partner while living in Berlin, Germany.

He was accompanied on stage by the young American conductor Jayce Ogren, who has led NACO before. Ogden also conducted Prima Donna at the Philharmonie in Paris and he recorded the work for Deutsche Gramophone with the BBC Symphony. Wainwright sang Les Feux d’Artifice t’Appellent which is the final aria from Prima Donna. The opera tells the story of a day in the life of an opera singer preparing a comeback.

The audience applause prompted three encore songs including a stellar rendition of a song he says he sang as a child to end his parents’ parties, Over the Rainbow. Wainwright has famously recreated a legendary 1961 concert by Judy Garland, sat on the edge of the stage and belted out the song and the sentiment made famous by the American singer so long ago:

Oh, somewhere over the rainbow way up high
And the dream that you dare to, why oh, why can’t I?

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.