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A buzz-worthy premiere

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
10/13/2018 -  & October 17*, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 2018
Rufus Wainwright: Hadrian
Thomas Hampson (Hadrian), Isaiah Bell (Antinous), Karita Mattila (Plotina), Ambur Braid (Sabina), David Leigh (Turbo), Ben Heppner (Dinarchus), Gregory Dahl (Hermogenes), John Mac Master (Fabius), Roger Honeywell (Trajan), Anna-Sophie Neher (Lavia), Thomas Glenn (Nervous Senator), Samuel Chan (Sycophantic Senator), Joel Allison (Superior Senator), Madelaine Ringo-Stauble*/Josh Fralick (Angelic Boy, Herald)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (chorus master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Debus (conductor)
Peter Hinton (director), Michael Gianfrancesco (set designer), Gillian Gallow (costume designer), Bonnie Beecher (lighting designer), Laurie-Shawn Borzovoy (projection designer), Denise Clarke (choreographer), Cori Ellison (dramaturg)

T. Hampson, I. Bell (© Michael Cooper)

The Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian has created quite a lot of buzz (as any new opera really ought to).

Rufus Wainwright was inspired by Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, a rambling account of the Roman emperor’s wide-ranging activities in which his relationship with the youth Antinous is laconically recounted. Librettist Daniel MacIvor used other sources to devise his plot which, like virtually all operas treating historical events, rearranges time-lines and invents many details both major and minor.

The first of four acts occurs on the last night of Hadrian’s life. He is ill and grieving the death a year before of Antinous. He implores his physician, Hermogenes, to end his suffering. Unable to follow this command, Hermogenes kills himself. The ghost of Hadrian’s predecessor, Trajan, and his wife Plotina, appear. They are now deities and are obsessed about the rise of monotheistic religions (Jews and Nazarenes) whose beliefs, if spread, would demolish the pagan cults, and thus erase them. Hadrian wants to know how Antinous died; the two deities will allow him to re-live two days of his life: the day he met Antinous and the day Antinous died, if Hadrian will act to suppress the monotheistic beliefs.

Act II: We then go back in time seven years to the Greek festival Robigalia during which Hadrian meets the youth Antinous, who has saved him from an attacking boar; there is a mutual attraction. Hadrian’s neglected wife, Sabina, expresses her sadness. The priest Dinarchus proclaims the sacrifice to come: a dog. Hadrian and Sabina protest, and a lamb is substituted. A sybil comes forth predicting that Antinous will sacrifice (himself?) and become a savior. The sybil reveals herself to us as Plotina, obviously still furthering the interests of paganism.

Act III (six years have passed) opens with love scene between Hadrian and Antinous that is the subject of the “Content advisory” on the COC website: “Hadrian contains partial nudity and scenes of a sexual nature”. I am loath to launch into a disquisition here, but sex scenes in live theatre are usually something we must endure rather than enjoy. This one is far less bad than most. I suppose the most piquant element is that the emperor is on the bottom. At least it an improvement over Aschenbach languishing hopelessly after Tadzio.

It turns out that Antinous supports a peaceable approach to the monotheists and this has influenced Hadrian, much to the concern of militant members of the court, notably Turbo, his military chief. Hadrian is gravely ill; another sybil (this time Sabina in disguise) appears stating that a sacrifice is required to save the emperor, indicating to Antinous that he ought to sacrifice himself. Sabina then witnesses a scene in which Antinous cares for Hadrian and she sees her husband’s love for the youth. This results in a revelation for her: “He loves” she exclaims (repeatedly). Just when Antinous is about to leap to his death, she confesses that she had been the false Sybil. Turbo intervenes and kills Antinous, throwing his body into the Nile.

Act IV: We are back to the situation in Act I. Knowing that he is dying, Hadrian signs the document inciting war against Judea. (After all, Plotina had kept her end of the bargain.) Hadrian’s proclamation that the brightest star be renamed Antinous is read out, but Hadrian spurns it. There is a confrontation with Turbo. As Hadrian dies he is received by the other deities (Plotina, Trajan, Sabina, Antinous), while Turbo, repeating “He loved”, cradles the royal robes. The black-clad chorus, representing the monotheists, emerges ominously from the shadows proclaiming “To war!”

With one intermission the opera is three hours long.

There is a real effort here to create Opera (note the capital “O”). It certainly has more going for it than the company’s last premiere work, Barbara Monk Feldman’s inert “non-opera”Pyramus and Thisbe in 2015. Wainwright’s music is notable for long lines of declamation in parlando or arioso style, plus there is a lot of spoken dialogue. The language is rather plain, with many repeated phrases. The challenge for the singers is to maintain the lengthy utterances and by and large they accomplish this. The 73-member orchestra is used discreetly, usually providing a background rather than accompaniment. The overall effect is tonal with dramatic outbursts at key moments.

It is all very high-toned and serious, with just a couple of lighter moments, one a catty exchange between Trajan and Plotina, another a brief exchange among secondary characters. There are times one wishes things would accelerate. There is arguably over-reach, especially toward the end. One lengthy exchange reminded me of the ending of “Der Abschied” in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The final scene when Hadrian is received into the pantheon seems to want to emulate the transcendental finale of Die Frau ohne Schatten, a tough act to follow.

The one role that has two quasi-arias that require some embellishment is that of Sabina, and for this Ambur Braid earns notable (and well deserved) applause at the curtain calls.

In the title role Thomas Hampson maintains the daunting tessitura and gives a forthright, convincing performance. Equally convincing is Isaiah Bell as Antinous, with both the looks and voice of a youth. Karita Mattila is impressive in the role of Plotina which demands consistent elevated delivery. David Leigh is the militant Turbo; he is a bit young to give it full gravitas, but his bass tone is striking.

Ben Heppner steps out of retirement to give a masterful performance in the high-lying role of the priest, Dinarchus. Roger Honeywell isn’t given enough to do as Trajan (he let his wife do the bargaining and scheming). Other smaller roles are well characterized and solidly sung: John Mac Master as Fabius, Gregory Dahl as Hermogenes, and Anna-Sophie Neher as Lavia.

Throughout the opera five young men with classic builds and wearing only dance belts provide a backdrop while at times interacting in a stylized way with singers, for example when Antinous’s body is hurled into the Nile. Their presence works well, as do Laurie-Shawn Borzovoy’s projections.

The company has devoted a lot of its resources to this, as it did for its last commission, Randolph Peters’ The Golden Ass in 1999. I thought it was a viable and entertaining work, but it has never received a second run. Only time will tell whether Hadrian will meet the same fate.

Michael Johnson



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