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Review: Rufus Wainwright

Adelaide Festival

Zing went the strings of our hearts! With a voice two parts finest French champagne and one part whisky chaser, Rufus Wainwright charmed Adelaide with a Festival closer that showcased his monumental talents.

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The son of US singer Loudon Wainwright III and Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle (and brother of Martha Wainwright) had a childhood saturated with musical inspiration. It shows. In addition to writing and singing his own works, Wainwright has collaborated with artists as diverse as Elton John, Boy George and Joni Mitchell, and worked on music for feature films including Brokeback Mountain, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Moulin Rouge.

He partnered with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and several guest singers for his Adelaide show.

The first half of the evening featured a new “symphonic visual concert” with selections from his 2009 opera, Prima Donna. The visual aspect of the performance was provided by a film (directed by Francesco Vezzoli and starring self-portrait photographer Cindy Sherman in a series of diva guises) projected onto a giant screen behind the musicians.

Set in Paris, Prima Donna tells the story of Régine St Laurent, an ageing opera star preparing for her stage comeback – an attempt to reprise her original role as Aliénor of Aquitaine. As she struggles with doubts about her voice, she falls in love, but her affections bring only loss and betrayal.

Prima Donna is a sombre and introspective piece. There are moments of passion for each of the three excellent soloists – Jacqueline Dark (Régine), Eva Kong (Marie, The Maid) and Andrew Goodwin (André Letourneur, The Reporter) – but it’s our own ASO that really shines, making the most of Wainwright’s score.

The libretto, sometimes poetic and at other times less so, contains some beautiful imagery. In the final scene, an ageing Régine blows out the candles in her apartment and watches the Bastille Day fireworks explode over the city. It’s an elegant end to a rich and interesting work.

In the second half of the evening, Wainwright, (resplendent in a red sequinned tail coat and ruby slippers) performed highlights from Rufus Does Judy, his acclaimed 2006 recreation of Judy Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. What an exhilarating and emotional experience!

Once again accompanied by conductor Guy Simpson with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Wainwright romped through 17 of Garland’s songs, each more impressive than the last and all delivered with apparent ease and that voice.

Three of the most famous numbers (“You Made Me Love You”, “For Me and My Gal” and “The Trolley Song”) were performed as a medley, while the remainder got the full treatment. “If Love Were All” was dedicated to his close friend, Carrie Fisher, and another song, “Forever and a Year”, from Neil Armfield’s film Holding the Man, was presented as a special favour for the Adelaide Festival artistic director.

This is the first time the Judy show has been performed in Australia. (Wainwright only does it every 10 years, highlighting just how much of a coup it was for the Adelaide Festival to secure it for the 2017 program.) There was cheering and whistling from the opening number to the single encore, and two standing ovations.

Rufus Does Judy is both a celebration of one famous night in the career of an iconic artist, and a thrilling, joyous evening with one of the world’s most accomplished singer-songwriters. Extraordinary.

Rufus Wainwright performed at the Festival Theatre for one night only on Saturday.

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