Rufus Wainwright Mauls Garland, Gets Upstaged by Sister: Review

Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright, the U.S. singer-songwriter, is the first solo artist to take over London's Royal Opera House for five nights. Wainwright's "Velvet, Glamour and Guilt" shows include his Judy Garland songs, his mini-opera and guest appearances by his sister Martha, his father Loudon and the Britten Sinfonia. Photographer: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

In Rufus Wainwright’s concert of Judy Garland songs at London’s Royal Opera House, it was a surprise to hear him warble “fatty rain, oh cinnamon shelf.”

I think he meant “that sun comes shining through.” Diction as dodgy as Wainwright’s can really play havoc with your ears. He sings like he's in the “My Fair Lady” scene with marbles in his mouth.

Quite aside from the mangled vowels, it’s a surprise to find the singer-songwriter on the Covent Garden stage at all. He’s best known for some hummable pop songs, and as the composer of “Prima Donna,” a dire best-to-be-forgotten attempt at an opera. Despite that, the Royal Opera has given him the first-ever five-night residency awarded to a solo artist.

What were they thinking? If all failed opera composers were given such boons, the consequences wouldn’t bear thinking about. I guess it’s the usual twaddle of “bringing in new audiences.”

It’s not Wainwright’s only piece of luck. This month, a 19-disc set of his complete works is being issued, called “House of Rufus.” Yup. That’s 19 discs. Even Daniel Barenboim doesn’t get that kind of treatment.

For his first concert last night, Wainwright performed a shortened version of his touring “Rufus Does Judy!” show, singing numbers from Judy Garland’s 1961 performance in Carnegie Hall.

The Britten Sinfonia accompanied him, conducted by Stephen Oremus, and all the performers shared the stage with a big red drape and an enormous glitter ball.

His distaste for proper plosives and clear consonants aside, Wainwright has some strengths as a performer. His energy is formidable, and no audience could consider itself shortchanged with a concert of 20 or so numbers over two hours.

Garland Stamp

His tenor voice has an attractively grainy timbre, and his breath control is impressive. He’s brave, too, to attempt songs on which Garland put her inimitable stamp.

There the plusses end. Garland was a performer who left only the thinnest of veils between her emotions, her songs, and her audience. Listening to her recordings, you can hear a lifetime of joy and pain in her voice, sometimes embarrassingly so.

In Wainwright’s case, the emotional veil is more of a nice thick woolly blanket. Dramatic immediacy and emotional variety are almost zero. It’s as if he wants the attention for the singer and not the song, in a “hey, look at me!” way.

On YouTube there are clips of him performing the Garland standard “Come On Get Happy” in drag -- in concert he’s been known to slip into something more comfortable.

Playing Safe

I was quite looking forward to seeing him in stockings and heels: It would have injected some life into the show, at least. He played safe, and remained in a pink shirt and black waistcoat all night.

His sister Martha came on for one number, looking oddly bulgy in a clingy zebra-print body-stocking. Then she blew her brother out of the water with a terrific rendition of “Stormy Weather” full of drama and surprising vocal colors. At last, some real singing and a real connection with music. Her fashion crimes were forgiven on the spot.

The five-night residency is called “House of Rufus” like the improbably enormous new boxed set. Wainwright repeats his Garland show on Friday (which is also his 38th birthday). On the other nights this week he performs with his sister and father Loudon, and there are excerpts from his opera on Saturday.

Wainwright has talent, for sure. It’s one of those curious wrinkles of fate that it’s of a more moderate level than his luck.

Rating: **.

“House of Rufus: Five Nights of Velvet, Glamour and Guilt” runs until July 23.

Information: or +44-20-7304-4000.

The “House of Rufus” box set (Universal Records) has 13 CDs and 6 DVDs. It was released in the U.K. yesterday priced 148 pounds and will be available on import to the U.S. for about $350.

Information: or

What the Stars Mean:
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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless
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