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MUSIC REVIEW

Wainwright’s performance rich with drama — and shushing

Rufus Wainwright (here, in Spain earlier this year) played the Opera House. Rufus Wainwright (here, in Spain earlier this year) played the Opera House. (Javier Fernandez Del Corral/Getty Images/File)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / August 5, 2010

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There was an unspoken understanding at Rufus Wainwright’s show at the Opera House Tuesday night. For 45 minutes, the audience instinctually admired the singer-songwriter as if he were a museum piece glowing under glass. Like an evening at Symphony Hall, coughs and throat-clearing were held until there was a short pause between songs, and applause came only at the end of Wainwright’s first of two sets.

With Wainwright alone onstage behind a grand piano, the performance — by turns bold, powerful, and self-important — was a statement on the loss and grief he’s still grappling with since his mother, Kate McGarrigle, died in January.

But it was also unclear what role the audience should play, aside from one of utmost reverence for the artist. When someone excitedly ventured to clap after the upbeat “Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now!,’’ his fellow fans shushed him back into silence.

That kind of pretension sometimes sapped the songs of their joy, but you got the impression this was exactly how Wainwright wanted his first set to unfold. The mood was fraught with drama, all the more suited for the bald-faced heartache on songs such as “Zebulon’’: “My mother’s in the hospital/ My sister’s at the opera/ I’m in love, but let’s not talk about it.’’

That song was from “All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu,’’ Wainwright’s new album that he played in its entirety before returning for a second set that loosened its grip on both the performer and the audience. This was obviously the fun-loving part of the show — applause, banter, and crowd engagement allowed.

Given how adventurous he’s been from one record to the next, it was startling that the performance was so cohesive as Wainwright generously surveyed his back catalog. His earliest material (“Beauty Mark’’ and “Matinee Idol,’’ off his 1998 self-titled debut) sat comfortably alongside more contemporary fare (“Going to a Town,’’ “The Art Teacher’’). The French chanson “Complainte de la Butte’’ unfurled with a waltz-like grace, and his sister, Martha Wainwright, added delicate harmonies on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.’’

During the encore, “Poses,’’ the title track from his sophomore release, was a reminder of how much Wainwright has evolved, from earnest singer-songwriter to grandiose auteur. Saluting his mother’s legacy, he closed the show with a luminous rendition of “Walking Song,’’ from the McGarrigles’ second album. As a preface, he mentioned that he thought her spirit was in the room that night, and by the time Wainwright finished, it was hard to argue otherwise.

Meanwhile, Martha Wainwright’s solo opening set couldn’t have been more distinct from her brother’s, just as intimate but on an acoustic guitar. She’s a chanteuse from the old school: loose and unpredictable, as if everything she sings and plays emanates purely out of the moment — and straight from the heart.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT

With Martha Wainwright

At: the Opera House, Tuesday