Rufus Wainwright’s latest recording is a smart and engaging encapsulation of his 2009 collaboration with Robert Wilson, Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The original production premiered on Easter Sunday, 2009, at the Berliner Ensemble, the theatre established by Bertold Brecht. It ran nearly 3 hours long, included 24 of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and featured its many actors in cross-dress, men portraying women and vice-versa. The production was brought to New York in 2014, where New York Times critic Charles Isherwood noted Wainwright’s “eclectic array of styles” and called its sparse, twisted visuals a “bizarre, dreamlike pageant” before dismissively concluding, “Looks cool. Sounds cool. Means absolutely nothing.”
Taking such a spectacle from the stage to the ear-buds can be disappointing, but Wainwright makes excellent editorial choices for this soundtrack in miniature. On Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, he pares the proceedings down to a single disc of less than 60 minutes running time, with each of the nine sonnets receiving both recitation and musical interpretation.
Wainwright keeps things varied enough to be interesting but concise enough to avoid boredom or overload. Think of Lou Reed’s much-maligned The Raven project from a decade ago. There is some similarity between the two projects, but where Reed’s production was an overly-long, overdramatic hodgepodge, Wainwright’s is a tightly curated and ultimately exhilarating romp through a varied collection of interpretations and performances. There is a panoply of voices at work on the record with such noted actors as Carrie Fisher, Sian Phillips, Peter Eyre, and Helena Bonham Carter providing recitation while vocalists Ana Prohaska, Florence Welch, and Christopher Nell join Wainwright in these pop-inflected operatic performances.
The dual stars of this production are Wainwright’s composition and arrangement skills combined with the vocals of Austrian soprano Anna Prohaska. Fans of Wainwright’s warm voice may be disappointed in the sparseness of its use here, but Prohaska, who takes lead on five of the nine sonnets, should win over her audience. Her crystalline, expressive voice injects emotion into every syllable, emphasizing just how well Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter adapts to operatic song structure. Similarly, Wainwright’s experience in composing the opera Prima Donna serves him well here. He has an ear attuned to the music of language and an ability to translate textual shadings into sympathetic melodies.
The only sour note is the inclusion of William Shatner reading Sonnet 129, which sucks the wind from the sails of Florence Welch’s airy, folk-inflected treatment of “When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes (Sonnet 29)”. Fortunately, Anna Prohaska returns with another masterfully operatic take on Sonnet 129 to erase what can only be seen as an ill-conceived wink at irreverence, a misstep in the service of ironic hipness.
Choosing these nine poems, Wainwright creates a mini-sonnet sequence from the larger collection. The sonnet sequence was a literary form that enjoyed high popularity in Elizabethan England, and was arguably perfected by Sir Philip Sidney in his work Astrophil and Stella. Shakespeare’s own collected sonnets form a loose sequence, with 126 addressed to a young male, often believed to be an actor, whom scholars have labeled “the Fair Youth”, while the final 28 address an equally mysterious “Dark Lady”.
Wainwright presents his own sequence among the nine sonnets he selects for performance here, opening and closing with contrasting dream references. Sonnet 43 offers the reversal of day and night with its closing couplet “All days are nights to see till I see thee, / And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me,” while Sonnet 87 offers the well-known closure “Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter, / In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.” The former values the dream world while the latter bemoans the reality of day, related meanings but the importance is in the changed perspective or valuation of the speaker. The former is an optimistic lover-to-be while the latter has lost value in dreaming. The seven sonnets in sequence between, in true Elizabethan tradition, bewail the frustrations of unrequited love (like poor Astrophil, whose only reward for the constancy of his devotion is a kiss stolen as Stella sleeps). Wainwright is also a Romantic, who takes heart in the pursuit of the unattainable.
Such could be considered for Wainwright’s ongoing pursuit of his creative muse. Wainwright is a true Romantic in his commitment to consistently reaching for seemingly unattainable goals, and setting the value in the attempt more so than the question of success or failure. His Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall was just such a reach, offending some in its boldness but rewarding those willing to follow him, with his muse, down a rabbit hole that few would have dared explore. So, too, his decision to compose the libretto for Prima Donna in French, which led to conflict with the Metropolitan Opera Company’s general manager, Peter Gelb, who had commissioned the work. Add this work, as well, an audacious yet refined celebration of artistic vision.