Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian

Tonight I saw the world premiere of Hadrian, an opera commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company with libretto by Daniel MacIvor, music composed by Rufus Wainwright, directed by Peter Hinton and conducted by Johannes Debus.

There are some wonderful performances, great moments to report.

First and foremost, the love story between two men presented on the opera stage brought an eruption of applause early in Act III. As Cori Ellison said in her interview, while we were presented with a homosexual encounter, everything was tasteful, discreet.

I was intrigued that Ambur Braid effortlessly stole the show, in a character who is far more sympathetic than one might expect. The jealous wife of a gay man, she has the two most dynamic moments musically, a pair of arias that, for whatever reason, are the moments of greatest inspiration & commitment from Rufus Wainwright. In this respect perhaps Wainwright is being truly Canadian, in being so self-effacing.

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(left) Karita Mattila (Plotina) and composer Rufus Wainwright (Gaetz photography)

How Canadian that the singing for the two characters who we might think of as homosexual –Antinous & Hadrian—is nowhere near so exciting, but nice & lovable all the same. Much of Hadrian’s part lies below middle C, quiet meditative music rather than wild passionate singing. Perhaps I am guilty of projecting, in citing the similarity between Wainwright (or how he has styled himself) and his lead; and I’m sure I’m not the only person noticing how much RW looks like Thomas Hampson, the baritone playing Hadrian. Isaiah Bell as Antinous had more challenging singing than Hampson, but even so, their passions were soft-pedaled, very tasteful and reflective for the most part.

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Thomas Hampson (left) who creates the role of Hadrian with Director Peter Hinton (Gaetz photography)

I can’t help thinking that at least some of this might be politics, a desire to avoid being too lurid or sexual. As a result the love is more philosophical than carnal, more poetic than urgently physical. And that’s fine. Hampson is solid as a rock in his portrayal, and for the most part the one we’re watching throughout.

There are some beautiful moments employing dance. In each of Acts I and II there was a beautiful segment choreographed for an all-male troupe of dancers: with inspired scoring from Wainwright. In several places RW rose to the challenge of writing something that sounded operatic.

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Isaiah Bell (centre) Thomas Hampson (foreground) and dancers (photo: Gaetz Photography) from the Canadian Opera Company production of Hadrian

In other places, I found myself retreating to a question of definitions. What do we mean by opera, what makes something operatic, I asked myself. If it’s sung by great opera singers, does that make it opera? Ben Heppner sang some marvellous passages in the Second Act, the voice as keen & edgy as ever. But much of the time I felt we were really watching a play set to music and sung in an operatic style, the libretto often dominating the composer, the rhythms of dialogue at times imposing themselves upon the arioso, such as it was, often declaimed or spoken and for the first two acts rarely handed over for purely musical exploitation. The last half was far better in my view, and far more operatic. Or perhaps it was a matter of getting accustomed to the style and knowing how to listen? I’ll be back to hear it again and likely will enjoy it more next time.

More troubling for me is the basic plotline. It’s somewhat operatic, that we have the story of an aged Hadrian who is obsessing over Antinous –which might be totally accurate—and then entering into a kind of bargain with ghostly figures of Plotina & Trajan, which is a device we might think of as operatic. Roger Honeywell & especially Karita Mattila gave larger than life performances.   David Leigh is a strong presence as Turbo, pushing him to fight.

But in the process I feel that the real Hadrian is sold out. I am no historian, I only know a tiny bit, and found this little bit for example: to confirm what I thought I remembered. Cori Ellison spoke of the dual plot of Verdi’s Don Carlo as a model for this opera, in its use of a historical plot plus a love-story. But with all due respect, if Verdi had been gay & writing the story of Hadrian–and if we can imagine a composer writing a homosexual love story in 1855—he wouldn’t have copped out and employed a pair of ghostly dei ex machina to get Hadrian to fight against the Jews & the Nazarenes (given that the real Hadrian needed no persuasion to take on the Jews, indeed to be their nemesis). No, Verdi would have given us a conflicted and troubled character who has good & bad qualities, not unlike what we see in Don Carlo or perhaps more like Amonasro, the warrior father in Aida. Hadrian is no saint: but I’m sure I’m sounding like a stickler, given that most people –me included—know so little about the historical Hadrian.

I think this opera will be better in its next utterance. In places Wainwright has written beautiful music, but in other places it’s long and would be improved with cutting. While I enjoyed the finale to the 2nd Act that brought us to intermission, I felt that the end of the opera went on too long, destroying the momentum and dramatic tension that had been built up, largely because Wainwright & MacIvor seemed to want to end on a sentimental note as far as monotheism. At the end I was reminded a bit of  Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten, in the intimation of prayers & the new religions of the Holy Land, although I thought Wainwright’s setting lacks the subtlety of Glass’s opera. In fairness, lots of people seemed to really like the way it ended.

I also wonder about the ghosts. Musically there needs to be more to make me believe, make me feel there’s something unearthly going on. But the ghosts appeared and it didn’t seem like a big deal in the musical setting Wainwright gave the moment; and then not long after, we jumped back in time and the Computer Generated Images were overpowering at this moment. As far as credibility, the CGI upstages the composer, whose music must be the real special effect, able to make us believe in magic & the afterlife.  I wanted to believe…

I think the COC deserve full credit for commissioning Wainwright & for putting so much time & effort into developing the opera. But as with so many performance pieces, there is still room for revision, and so we likely will see future incarnations of Hadrian. Director Hinton and conductor Debus have done marvelous work assembling this production into something wonderfully taut, with many highlights & beautiful moments. The COC orchestra & chorus did great work.

Hadrian continues until October 27th at the Four Seasons Centre.

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2 Responses to Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian

  1. Joseph Kerman’s “Opera as Drama” still stands up as a marvellous read on what we mean by opera.

  2. Pingback: Pushing our buttons 2: pornographic musings on Actéon and Venus | barczablog

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