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The Dark Lady and Judy Garland Play the Muses

Published: 2010-12-07
Rufus Wainwright Rufus Wainwright knows how to make an entrance. Wearing a black floor-length gown with a matching fur collar and dark eye makeup, he was every inch the tragic diva as he gravely crossed the stage of Carnegie Hall on Monday evening.

A prima donna and a sad clown rolled into one, this grand, androgynous mourner embodied the grieving central figure of Mr. Wainwright's sixth studio album, “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu," released last spring.

A cycle of 12 songs that includes his adaptation of Shakespeare sonnets 43, 20 and 10, “All Days Are Nights" is an outpouring of raw self-pity: a kind of musical crying jag, if you will. The Lulu of the title, Mr. Wainwright has said in interviews, refers to the silent-film flapper Louise Brooks, the Alban Berg opera “Lulu," and the Dark Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets. Whoever she is, she is the embodiment of Mr. Wainwright's alter ago, a haughty, high-strung opera star who feels entitled to vent any and every emotion with a feverish intensity. “Prima Donna" is the title of his first opera, which had its debut in England last year, and which he announced would open at the New York City Opera in 2012.

The first half of the evening was an uninterrupted performance of the song cycle illustrated with clips of a long-lashed eye (presumably Mr. Wainwright's) ringed in black makeup, slowly opening and closing, the area of shadow suggesting a thumbprint.

Its music is an ultraromantic pop pastiche of French impressionist composers, from Debussy to Fauré, and consists largely of flowery, continuously modulating arpeggios attached to wandering melodies. Mr. Wainwright sought to sustain an orchestral texture as thick as the piano could produce.

Except for the sonnets, the lyrics are a torrent of angst, much of it abstract, that coalesces to some degree around the death in January of Mr. Wainwright's mother, the great folk singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle. Two songs address his close relationship with his sister, Martha Wainwright, to whom the album is dedicated, and who appeared after intermission to sing some harmony vocals.

Mr. Wainwright's heavily chromatic music lacks the harmonic refinement and dynamic subtlety of his French role models, but his theatrical presentation strove to make up the difference. His singing, as ever, went in and out of focus. His most problematic vocal area is a middle register that can sound like a coarse, grainy whine when pushed too hard, and a vibrato that wavers uncertainly when he sings softly.


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