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SCRUTINY | Wainwright’s 'Hadrian' A Worthwhile Opera, But Needs Some Work

By Joseph So on October 15, 2018

Ambur Braid as Sabina and Thomas Hampson as Hadrian in the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere production of Hadrian, 2018. (Photo: Michael Cooper)
Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian is appealing and accessible, but lacks the dramatic twists and turns to make this an enduring production. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Wainwright/MacIvor: Hadrian. Thomas Hampson; Karita Mattila; Isaiah Bell; Ambur Braid; Ben Heppner; David Leigh; Gregory Dahl; Roger Honeywell; John Mac Master; Anna-Sophie Neher; Thomas Glenn; Samuel Chan; Joel Allison; Madelaine Ringo-Stauble. Peter Hinton (director); Michael Gianfrancesco (designer); Gillian Gallo (costumes); Johannes Debus (conductor); COC Orchestra and Chorus. Four Seasons Centre, October 13, 2018.

Arguably the highest profile event of the 2018-19 Canadian Opera Company’s season is the world premiere of Hadrian, by singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright. This is the first mainstage, full-length commission by the COC since Randolph Peters’ The Golden Ass, dated to 1999. To my knowledge, the Peters opera was never revived, and now just languishing on the library shelf. Would Hadrian catch on, or share a similar fate?

The COC pulled out all the stops for Hadrian, loosening the purse strings to mount a lavish production, assembling a huge cast with star American baritone Thomas Hampson and glamorous Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in their Company debuts. Even the retired Ben Heppner has been persuaded to return for a cameo role. No wonder — Wainwright is quoted as wanting to put “grand” back into “grand opera.”

This highly anticipated show opened last evening in the Four Seasons Centre. It was virtually sold-out, and there was an air of anticipation. Amongst a dressier-than-usual audience, I spotted Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, as well as Adrienne Clarkson and her husband John Rolston Saul, all known to be big opera fans. While not quite Wagnerian in length, the show lasted almost three hours, including a shortish intermission.

A scene. from the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere production of Hadrian (Photo: Michael Cooper)
A scene. from the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere production of Hadrian (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The audience was mostly quiet and attentive — except for the moment when someone let loose a whistle after Hadrian (Thomas Hampson) and Antinous (Isaiah Bell) kissed, bringing forth laughter and applause. Sadly there was only stony silence in the genuinely funny moments, like this catty exchange between two dead characters:

Plotina (Mattila in a costume more suited on top of a birthday cake): You’re looking well Trajan, so long dead

Trajan (Roger Honeywell, in full Roman regalia): And you too, Plotina. The Underworld suits you.

The opera depicts the last hours of the life of Roman emperor Hadrian, who grieves the death of his lover Antinous. Either through magic or maybe he is just hallucinating, he relives two nights of his life – his meeting and falling in love with Antinous, and the circumstances surrounding the death of Antinous. Running parallel to the love story is the subplot of conflict between the monotheism of the Jews and the polytheism of the Romans.

Given its gay theme, the COC printed dire warnings in its pre-show publicity material about “…nudity and sexual content…recommended for 18 or over.” Well, they needn’t have worried. There was no frontal nudity, and the sex scenes were tame. As tenor Isaiah Bell said when I interviewed him: “Nothing feels gratuitous…Any content that’s in there, it’s there to tell a story.”  That said, I did notice a few more empty seats after intermission, perhaps indicative of a certain discomfort given the gay theme?

Wainwright being a dyed-in-the-wool melodist, the score of Hadrian isn’t “new music” at all. There are dissonances, but over all it’s tonal, lyrical, and above all accessible. Structurally grounded in traditional opera, one hears arias, duets, even a trio, with moments of melodic inspiration. Naysayers would call his music derivative, but it’s suitably evocative. At one point I heard the opening notes of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen from Rückert-Lieder. Another place reminded me of “Abschied” from Das Lied von der Erde — perhaps Wainwright is a Mahler fan?  One aria has the languid qualities of slow jazz and blues.

(l-r) Thomas Hampson as Hadrian and Isaiah Bell as Antinous (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The vocal writing is challenging for all the principals, hammering at both extremes of the range. Thankfully this production is blessed with an excellent cast. Sabina, married to Hadrian in a loveless marriage, is understandably angry. But her music sits at the top of her range much too much. Dramatic-coloratura Ambur Braid dispatched her stratospheric high notes with aplomb, producing huge volume and gleaming tone. For her efforts, she received a deserved ovation after her aria.

Hadrian is a huge sing, and Thomas Hampson at age 63 did an amazing job.  After taking a few minutes to rid his voice of a slow vibrato, he sang strongly and indefatigably, commanding the stage with a mix of regal dignity and vulnerability. As the object of his affection, Isaiah Bell’s clear tenor and youthful physique made him a believable Antinous. His aria also brought spontaneous applause from the audience, one of only two singers so rewarded.

Finnish diva Karita Mattila oozed glamour as Plotina, and she sang with still lovely tone, after an amazing 35-year career. Her over-the-top stage persona perfectly matched her costume, ideal for the top of a birthday cake. American bass David Leigh was a terrific Turbo, singing with impressive volume and sonorous timbre. Turbo is the “bad guy” — he snaps the neck of Antinous, for some reason unconvincingly staged. As the court physician Hermogenes, Gregory Dahl made the most of his brief moments in Act One.

This show boasts not one but two heldentenors in Ben Heppner (Dinarchus) and John Mac Master (Fabius). At age 62, Heppner’s powerful voice remains impressive, despite some unsteadiness. Mac Master’s top register, always his glory, remains in excellent shape. Several COC Ensemble Studio members took on supporting roles, with special kudos going to Anna-Sophie Neher who was excellent as Sabina’s lady-in-waiting, Lavia.

The production with its black iridescent set was strikingly beautiful, enhanced in no small way by amazing projections and effective lighting. Director Peter Hinton, so impressive in Louis Riel two seasons ago, repeated his excellent work, in a show essentially free of directorial willfulness. Having attended a working rehearsal, I am happy to report that the few directorial excesses didn’t make it to opening night.

More problematic is the libretto by Daniel MacIvor, which is not ideally nuanced and a bit repetitious. To be honest, the final tableau was predictable and kitschy. Coupled with insufficient dramatic twists and turns, the show could have benefited from some judicious cutting. The orchestra played excitingly if loudly under COC Music Director Johannes Debus. The sound was thrilling to be sure, but occasionally at the expense of the singers. At the end of the day, I find Hadrian an enjoyable if flawed piece.  It’s appealing and accessible, but without resorting to crossover or musical theatre. With some tweaking, my money is on it to have a better fate than The Golden Ass.

Joseph So
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