OPERA NEWS - Hadrian
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Canadian Opera Company

In Review COC Hadrian hdl 119
Ambur Braid, Thomas Hampson, Isaiah Bell and Karita Mattila in Hadrian
© Michael Cooper

THE MOST ANTICIPATED night of the Toronto opera season was the October 11 world premiere of Hadrian at Canadian Opera Company. Composed by American–Canadian indie pop singer/songwriter Rufus -Wainwright, with a libretto by Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor, Hadrian was COC’s first commission of a new mainstage opera since 1999. Unfortunately, the ravishing playing of the COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus, the glorious singing of the principals and the straightforward stage direction of Peter Hinton only made clear the inherent flaws in both the libretto and the score.

Wainwright’s desire to compose a “grand opera” led him to write a melodic, modern opera seria, with all the form’s attendant problems. Prime among these is that the arias do not move the action forward: each expresses a single emotion and even follows the da capo formula of repeating the first stanza. The arias are linked by recitatives in which Wainwright gives each word the same heavy weight, so that information is conveyed very slowly—only to introduce arias that are also very slow. As in his first opera, Prima Donna (2009), Wainwright’s score registers as a series of homages to previous composers. The music depicting Hadrian’s madness is very like Prokofiev’s in depicting Renata’s madness in The Fiery Angel. Plotina’s long, seductive Act I aria sounds heavily influenced by Gershwin. Hadrian and Antinous’s first declaration of love recalls the Sea Interludes in Britten’s Peter Grimes. Wagner, Respighi, Gustav Holst, Richard Strauss, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt and Poul Ruders all seem to hold sway at various times. The most effective aria of the evening—and the one that caused the audience to stop the show with applause—was Sabina’s lamenting her neglect by her husband, Hadrian, which sounds more like Wainwright’s own music than any of the other arias.

The prime motivation of both Wainwright and MacIvor was to tell the story of the overwhelming love of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (who reigned 117–138 AD) for the Bithynian youth Antinous. Hadrian begins on the final night of Hadrian’s life. The emperor still mourns the death of Antinous, eight years earlier. The ghosts of Trajan, Hadrian’s predecessor as emperor, and of Trajan’s wife, Plotina, appear to Hadrian and offer him a deal: if Hadrian signs a decree declaring war against Jews and Christians because of their monotheism, the ghosts will allow Hadrian to relive two days with Antinous. Hadrian agrees and relives the day he met Antinous in Bithynia in 123 and the day Antinous died, at nineteen, in Egypt in 130. Hadrian wants to experience the second in particular, in order to solve the mystery of how and why Antinous drowned in the Nile.

COC general manager Alexander Neef assembled an unusually starry cast for the Hadrian premiere, with international stars Thomas Hampson and Karita Mattila both making COC debuts. As Hadrian, Hampson displayed a gloriously full, multihued baritone whose warmth and expressivity were ideal for establishing Hadrian as a sympathetic character. As Plotina, Mattila displayed a soprano so enormously impressive that one wished Wainwright had given her more than one long aria in which to shine.

As Hadrian’s lover, Antinous, the impressive Canadian tenor Isaiah Bell sang with a high, well-rounded, English-style tenor that suited a haughty young male on the brink of manhood. American David Leigh sang Antinous’s nemesis, Turbo, with a bass of unusual agility, depth and darkness. Canadian Ambur Braid’s powerful coloratura soprano and sensitive acting made her Sabina a strong presence. Wainwright also wrote a cameo role for Canadian heldentenor Ben Heppner—Dinarchus, Governor of Bithynia—that proved Heppner’s voice still has its familiar might and luster.

Hadrian was worth seeing if only to hear singing of such a high caliber. A standing ovation began long before Hampson and Mattila made their appearances and grew louder when Wainwright and MacIvor took their bows. There was undeniable excitement in seeing a new Canadian opera on the COC’s main stage after so long, and one given such a lavish production. Clearly, many in the audience were elated to see a large-scale opera unashamedly focus on a gay love story. 

For Wainwright, Hadrian represents a great step forward from Prima Donna. With his gift for melody, he could still become an important opera composer if only he would trust his own voice, as he does in his songwriting, and overcome the need to imitate and pay homage to the great classical music he clearly loves.  —Christopher Hoile

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