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Theatre Reviews Review: Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian bares moments of genuine beauty, but weighed down by clunky plot

  • Title: Hadrian
  • Composed by: Rufus Wainwright
  • Libretto by: Daniel MacIvor
  • Director: Peter Hinton
  • Company: Canadian Opera Company
  • Venue: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Runs to: Oct. 27

rating

Their first two operas are not what the great composers are known for. The standard operatic canon includes most of Mozart’s final 10 operas, about two-thirds of Verdi’s output; and though Wagner’s operas are almost all essential parts of the repertoire, his early works (Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot and Rienzi) get the least amount of play. Rufus Wainwright will find himself in great company, as his second opera earns a similar place in the 21st-century opera canon.

Hadrian, based on the titular Roman Emperor and his younger male lover, Antinous, has roots in a compelling piece of history. Hadrian is taken with Antinous’s beauty, and what begins as lust between the two men grows, over six years, into mature love. It’s a story of the kind of intimacy that grows out of improbable circumstances, where the line between love and obligation could have been easily blurred. Antinous was likely a young teen when he first met Hadrian, compounding a large age gap onto what was already an enormous imbalance of power.

Isaiah Bell stars as Antinous in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Hadrian.

Michael Cooper coopershoots.com

The good news: Wainwright’s opera has moments of genuine beauty. The orchestra bubbles with eclectic sounds and stunning, pared-down moments of chamber music. The score makes nods to Satie, Debussy, Puccini and Mahler; Wainwright’s frisky style creeps to the forefront, leaving his footprints in the quirky jazz tunes scattered throughout. There’s a fun sextet that feels like a modern version of the sexy Carmen quintet.

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The story as told in the libretto by Daniel MacIvor is singable, an operatic balance of forward-moving action and luxuriating emotion. His text, Wainwright’s music and the direction by Peter Hinton distinctly tell a story of true love, with no blurred lines between Hadrian and Antinous. We believe that the couple is special, and we can connect with Hadrian’s tragic loss. There was honest chemistry between Thomas Hampson (Hadrian) and Isaiah Bell (Antinous); Hampson is an endearing mix of vigorous and weathered, and Bell has a gorgeous arc from young caution to mature confidence. And perhaps this is the first time I’ve thought this in an opera, but the sex scene – much hyped and beautifully done, I thought – helped us connect with the two men.

The bad news: all of this took much too long. What could have been a tight, intense story of Hadrian and Antinous’s handful of years together, was instead a static, clunky plot. There are deities (Karita Mattila as Plotina, and Roger Honeywell as Trajan), desperate to stay relevant, who bribe Hadrian with a Christmas Carol-like trip back in time to discover the truth about Antinous’s suspicious death. We get a once-removed version of the story, frustratingly interrupted time and time again by the deity factor.

And Wainwright seemed to bask in the interruptions. By intermission, it became par for the course that each moment of the story – even the ones that are arguably superfluous – would take a long time to play out. Too soon in the opera, it became clear that we were hearing Wainwright first (and at times, Karita Mattila first) and story second. One exception was in Ambur Braid’s portrayal of Sabina, Hadrian’s wife; hers were always worthwhile moments onstage, including her firecracker singing as the disguised magician – even if it was from underneath a black veil.

Ambur Braid plays Sabina and Thomas Hampson stars as Hadrian.

Michael Cooper coopershoots.com

Listening to the interminable end of Hadrian illuminates a lot about Wainwright’s own operatic tastes: he seems to value grand for the sake of grand, long for the sake of long. The opera’s final act could have ended at least three times before it actually did, and as the cast sang lines such as, “Is this the end?” on repeat, it was almost – almost – as though he were mocking opera (in the way that Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos cheekily beats a dead horse with that final duet).

Wainwright is immensely invested in this story, and cares deeply for its characters. Yet I suspect that we won’t get compelling drama in his operas until he places storytelling firmly at the top of his to-do list.

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