in performance: rufus wainwright

rufus wainwright.

Picking a point in Rufus Wainwright’s sublime solo performance last night at the Opera House where the music reached an emotional zenith will likely prompt generous debate. My vote, though, goes to the tune that kicked off a three-song encore segment. Titled “Going to a Town,” the work allowed the politics that had been largely personal up to that point to cover the country. “I’m going to a town that has already been burnt down,” Wainwright sang with the same undistilled drama that fueled the rest of the performance. “I’m going to a place that has already been disgraced. I’m gonna see some folks who have already been let down.” But the last line of the verse, the confession of an artist with dual citizenship in the United States and Canada, pinned down the song’s pensive deflation like a coffin nail. “I’m so tired of America.”

In musical terms, Wainwright had, as the very topical saying goes, taken a knee. But the tune was written and recorded over 15 years ago. Go figure.

Curiously, this song’s weariness fell near the end of a performance that included considerable globetrotting. For instance, Wainwright prefaced “Gay Messiah” (one of several quiet but powerfully emotive tunes from the two-volume “Want” albums) with a confession that the tune had earned him the title, courtesy of the Italian press, of “Lo Scandaloso.” Then there was the French-sung “Les deux d’artfice t’appellent (The Fireworks Are Calling to You),” a solo piano version of the closing aria to Wainwright’s 2009 opera “Prima Donna.” Most enchanting of all was an impromptu cover of Bola de Nieve’s Afro-Cuban serenade “Drume Negrita,” a souvenir of sorts from concerts Wainwright gave last weekend in Havana.

The latter, like many tunes in the evening, proved wonderful vehicles for the astonishing clarity of Wainwright’s singing. At times, as on “Gay Messiah,” his vocals soared into a pristine soul falsetto. On “Jericho,” they bloomed into an effortlessly rich tenor. But at its most captivating, the singing sank to a dark, spacious whisper, as on “Zebulon,” which served as a ghostly lead-in to “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.” The latter, long a favorite of Wainwright crowds, bounced about with child-like abandon before a growing dissonance made the song jump the pop tune tracks altogether.

Capping it all were two Leonard Cohen classics – “So Long Marianne,” where Wainwright’s singing flew with regal drama into the stratosphere, and an encore version of the signature tune “Hallelujah,” performed as a stately, respectful nod from one master Canadian songsmith to another.

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