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PRIMER | Behind The Curtains At The Canadian Opera Company's Hadrian

By Joseph So on September 16, 2018

Karita Mattila and Rufus Wainwright chat over the score of Hadrian.
Karita Mattila and Rufus Wainwright chat during a rehearsal of Hadrian in Toronto at the Canadian Opera Company.

Calling all Toronto opera lovers — the new season is upon us!  The 2018-19 season is new in more ways than one, with the COC presenting as part of its fall season the world premiere of Hadrian on Oct. 13 — a new opera by Rufus Wainwright.

A singer/songwriter/composer, Wainwright’s first opera, Prima Donna, premiered in the Manchester International Festival in 2009, and had its North American premiere at the 2010 Luminato Festival in Toronto, starring Janice Kelly in the title role. I recall thoroughly enjoying its haunting lyricism and melodic inspiration.

Hadrian represents Wainwright’s second stab at the operatic genre, this time commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company. Given its unfamiliarity, the COC organized a media preview to give journalists a first look. Yesterday at the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, we got to hear parts of the score for the first time, and to see a rehearsal of Act 2. There were plenty of journalists and cameras present, including from the New York Times, underscoring the heightened media interest.

Hadrian cast in rehearsal (Photo: Joseph So)
Hadrian cast in rehearsal (Photo: Joseph So)

The COC is certainly pulling out all the stops, engaging a stellar cast led by American baritone Thomas Hampson as Hadrian. Also appearing is legendary Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as Plotina. The COC even persuaded the great Canadian heldentenor Ben Heppner to come out of operatic retirement as Dinarchus. Add to this is a long list of fine Canadians the likes of soprano Ambur Braid (Sabina) and tenor Isaiah Bell (Antinous).

Let me cut to the chase and talk about the most important things — how is the music?  Rufus Wainwright is a melodist above all, and it shows. Sung in English, the score is accessible and lyrical; and the libretto, by Daniel McIvor, suitably poetic.  And yes, there are even melodies!  New music can sound overly intellectual, even impenetrable — but not here. After hearing a couple of the passages repeated, I (almost) left the rehearsal humming the tunes.

The second important question has to do with the voices.  It’s great to hear Thomas Hampson still singing so well at 63, after a nearly 40-year career. Karita Mattila doesn’t have a whole lot to sing in Act 2, but she exudes an irresistible stage allure by just being there. I’m told she has a gorgeous aria in Act One, something to look forward to. Despite Dinarchus being a cameo role, Wainwright is certainly giving Ben Heppner’s top voice a workout! And the 62-year old veteran heldentenor shows he’s still up to the task.

Hadrian cast in rehearsal (Photo: Joseph So)
Hadrian cast in rehearsal (Photo: Joseph So)

Rising dramatic coloratura Ambur Braid had the most to sing yesterday, showing off her huge volume and brilliant top as Sabina. As Hadrian’s lover Antinous, Isaiah Bell looks every inch the romantic love interest and sings with ringing tone. Since this is still early in the rehearsal process, no sets and costumes were involved yesterday, and the chorus wasn’t there.

It’s interesting to witness the creative process, as a fly on the wall. I overheard a conversation between Hampson and Wainwright over the possibility of some modifications to the baritone’s vocal line, to make it more vocally or dramatically effective. All will be revealed in due course. Stay tuned!

Joseph So
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