Hadrian a visual feast but operatic letdown
The easiest way to summarize the world premiere of the new opera Hadrian at the Four Seasons Centre on Saturday night is this: These clothes have no emperor.
The Canadian Opera Company has created a fabulous production of singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright’s second try at the artform. It was a truly grand spectacle, with stunning visuals from the set, costumes, video projections, and positioning of cast, chorus and five male dancers.
The singing was excellent, with first-rate international and Canadian artists doing their best with an uneven score. The chorus was strong and the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra was in fine, high-definition form under music director Johannes Debus.
If this artform were only about spectacle, everyone involved could be congratulated for creating something resplendent, clearly inspired by 19th century grand opera.
But the grand operas that have remained in the repertoire have characters that we can identify with and music that continues to resonate in our heads and hearts long after the curtain falls. Unfortunately, Hadrian comes up short.
Toronto playwright Daniel MacIvor provides us with a simple plot: the early-second-century Roman emperor (excellently sung by American baritone Thomas Hampson) is on his deathbed. He recalls the day he met the love of his life, Antinous (young Canadian tenor Isaiah Bell), who has died in mysterious circumstances in Egypt.
The opera’s four acts introduce us to Hadrian’s predecessor, his uncle Trajan (Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell) and wife Plotina (Finnish soprano Karita Mattila), Hadrian’s wife Sabina (Canadian soprano Ambur Braid), and a cast of military people and senators.
The opera’s main preoccupation is Hadrian’s love for Antinous. That includes five minutes of centre-stage lovemaking. Even in a 2-1/2 hour opera, five minutes of sex feels like a very long time, regardless of the gender of the participants.
We are never given a good reason why we need to see this. Nor are we given much of an explanation for the current-events plot: a need to annihilate the Jews and early Christians.
MacIvor’s dialogue is poetic, opaque, repetitive and often made no obvious sense.
Wainwright’s score is a patchwork quilt of every possible style of art music from the mid-19th century to the present day. Each of the arias and duets, which have beautiful moments, sounds as if it was written as a standalone assignment before being stitched in with the rest of the material.
But Hadrian’s worst sin is in how seriously it takes itself and how slowly and ponderously everything moves. On opening night, an audience member took it upon himself to provide a moment of comic relief by whistling as Hadrian and Antinous started making out on the emperor’s couch, causing a wave of laughter in the opera house.
Despite all the eye candy and director Peter Hinton’s careful creation of delectable tableaux vivants, Hadrian felt twice as long as it needed to be.
The multiple false endings in the rousing everyone-on-stage-at-full-voice finale underlined how this opera is more about the love of making a statement than respect for great storytelling with words and music.
Opera is a living artform that deserves great new, Canadian contributions. Perhaps with some judicious cuts, plot adjustments, and a lightening up of a scene or two, Hadrian might one day hope to be one.
Classical music writer John Terauds is a freelance contributor for the Star, based in Toronto. He is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JohnTerauds
by Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor. Directed by Peter Hinton. Johannes Debus, conductor. Canadian Opera Company. Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Oct. 13. Runs to Oct. 27. Coc.ca