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Rufus was ridiculous – but the Arts Festival’s final weekend is looking mighty fine

The Spinoff Auckland editor Simon Wilson loathed Wednesday night’s Rufus Wainwright concert. But onwards: this weekend at the Auckland Arts Festival looks to be full of wonders.

There was a moment about halfway through Rufus Wainwright’s vainglorious “symphonic visual concert” Prima Donna (a concert version of his opera) when I thought the diva might be about to go all Carrie on them. No, not Carrie Fisher. I mean Carrie the vengeful merchant of death. In this case, if she’d got out a fucking big sword and drenched the stage in blood it would at least have been redemptive.

I mean, for fuck’s sake Rufus. An aging diva wants to return to the stage but there are young people who are now preferred and, tragically, they’re in love? This is a theme you think is worthy of a new opera in the 21st century? And you’re not going to do a single original thing with it because you’re too busy having your actor blow out candles and gaze through darkened windows, so you can wallow in the sad dignity of age?

And, adding artistic insult to the intellectual anaemia, you write a score that sounds motivated by nothing more than “oh well, it seemed to work in Chants d’Auvergne”? I saw a member of the APO yawn. I’m surprised they didn’t all just fall asleep. Or run amok with a big fucking knife themselves.

One good point: the singers were wonderfully good. Another bad one: the singing was accompanied by an unbelievably dreary film (made by someone “famous in artistic circles”, said Rufus, risibly). Although it did show us Cindy Sherman taking off her makeup and that felt special, albeit because Sherman makes a living dressing up as other people so the specialness of the moment was about her, not the quality of the opera.

Rufus Wainwright in Prima Donna. Photo: Jo Miller

At this point perhaps I should mention that by the end of the evening most of the audience was on its feet applauding, so my disappointment may not have been widely shared. Although I’ll bet it was the second half of the show, Rufus Does Judy Selections, that accounted for their enthusiasm.

Not mine, though. The original Rufus Does Judy, from 2006, saw Wainwright recreate Judy Garland’s famous comeback concert in 1961. He sang the same songs in imitation of her, even made the same lyric mistakes. It was, they say, a triumphant and highly emotional tribute, and it was also Wainwright’s response to the terror attacks of 9/11: a declaration of the value of American culture.

Ten years later he’s touring Selections as a set of swing standards that barely seem to interest him anymore. It’s not that he sings them badly – he’s far too proud of his own voice for that. And he truly is a glorious singer – he should be proud. His “Somewhere over the Rainbow” is agonisingly good and he hit a couple more high spots too. It’s just that this grab-bag of Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Rogers and Hart and others, shorn of the context of the Garland show, don’t have much reason to be any other kind of show. It was as if we were in Vegas on a Tuesday night, without even the possibility of getting rich, and he was hating it.

Rufus Wainwright is far better than that. He was terrific last time he was here. This show demeans him, and us with it.

Happily, the festival heads into its final weekend with a far better opera than Prima Donna on display, and several other shows that promise to be deeper, richer and much more entertaining than sad ol’ Rufe.

There’s much of great beauty in the brand-new New Zealand opera The Bone Feeder at the ASB Waterfront Theatre. Especially the music by Gareth Farr, played on European, Chinese and Maori instruments under the expert guidance of Peter Scholes; and also the staging by Sara Brodie and the singing of the cast too.

The story – Chinese visitor searches amid the ghosts of three ethnicities for ancestral links – is promising, but its realisation is too slight and the beauty of the music could do with some roughage. Still, at 80 minutes, The Bone Feeder offers a lovely evening in the theatre.

The Bone Feeder. Photography: Candice Whitmore

What else? Natalia Osipova and Guests including Sergei Polunin are about to show us what the best ballet dancers in the world (well, they’re among the best) can do when they turn their talents to contemporary dance by some of the best choreographers in the world.

Horror is still being utterly horrifying, as Alex Casey will tell you here. The great Atamira Dance Company is teaming up with the APO and 80 young singers to present the one-off spectacular AWA (5pm in the town hall on Saturday). Q Theatre has shows on the mainstage and upstairs and one of the Q-hosted shows has now moved to that fantastic community theatre, the Mangere Arts Centre. The museum will be transformed into an iceberg each night till Sunday, and that’s free.

And the acrobats, singers and comedians of La Soiree (reviewed here) continue to strut their delightfully and sometimes dangerously transgressive stuff in the spiegeltent until Sunday. If you haven’t seen anything in the festival yet, this is a very good weekend to start. Check it all out here.

The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.