I finally got to see Rufus Wainwright’s new opera Hadrian, to a libretto by Daniel Macivor, at the Four Seasons Centre last night. There’s been a lot of hype around it and I was interested; the few bits of music from it that I had heard intrigued me but I’m no fan of his earlier work Prima Donna. One thing was certain. The piece does not lack ambition. There are four acts totalling something like 160 minutes. There’s a large cast, a large orchestra, a large chorus and an epic storyline. It’s clearly an attempt to produce a “grand opera” for our times. Does it succeed?
I think we need to start with the plot for there many of the strengths and the weaknesses of the opera lie. The first and last acts are set on the last night of Hadrian’s life. The other two are flashbacks. At the core is Hadrian’s desire to know what befell his lover Antinous, killed in Egypt some years before. Layered onto this is Hadrian’s fraught relationship with the Jews and monotheism. If there’s only one god then he and his predecessors aren’t/won’t be gods; a perspective personified by the ghosts of his dead predecessor Trajan and consort Plotina. Without the imperial cult hat is Rome? Throw in the anger/jealousy of his rejected wife Sabina and there’s a potent cocktail of the personal and the political. I’m not sure the opera ever makes its mind up which it’s about.
The first three acts are straightforward enough. The plot elements are laid out. Hadrian does a deal with the ghosts to relive two nights of the past. First we see the night Hadrian meets and falls in love with Antinous. There are rustic celebrations and sacrifices. There is a Sibyl, later revealed to be Plotina, makes a Sibylline prophecy about sacrifice. fast forward six years to the night of Antinous’ death. The saintly (Christlike?) Antinous is for conciliation of the Jews. The traditionalist party aren’t having this and he is killed by Turbo (Hadrian’s guard commander?). And so to the final act where Hadrian approaches death. It’s problematic. All seems to be resolved but the librettist and composer can’t find it in them to stop. It just gets more portentous in a series of Shopping Channel like “and that’s not all” moments culminating in a curious final chorus prophesying war and chaos as the dead Romans (including Hadrian) do a sort of “the Gods enter Valhalla” thing. To me, this shifted the balance from a tragic love story with a political backdrop to something more portentous, even preachy, and I’m far from sure it worked.
The music is more in the Wagner/Strauss line than Debussy or Britten. It’s recognisably modern and loud; heavy on brass and percussion, but accessible. There are a couple of good arias; notably one each for Antinous and Sabina, but often the the vocal music consists of ensembles that come over as “wall of sound” rather than an interweaving of themes and ideas. It’s a marked advance on Prima Donna and shows quite a distinctive musical personality.
The designs (Michael Gianfrancesco, Gillian Gallow and Bonnie Beecher) and staging (Peter Hinton) are bold and colourful and just about fall short of camp; but only just. Gold lamé clad Roman senators and naked male dancers are a pretty risky combination. Naked male dancers sacrificing a lamb in a giant bronze bowl could probably provide employment for a small army of Jungians. There’s quite an impressive use of projections.
Performances across the board were strong. Thomas Hampson, in the title role, was everything one hoped for. His characteristic baritone is still firm and his acting is as capable and committed as ever. Karita Mattila displayed great stage presence as Plotina and the voice is still in good shape. Her English diction though might politely be described as “Sibylline”. Isaiah Bell looked the part as Antinous and made the most of his big aria. Ambur Braid was ideal as Sabina. There’s some serious lyrical singing to do and she filled the hall with a lovely sound but there was also the scene where she becomes the Sibyl and we got that very high, very low, very scary thing that few sopranos can do. David Leigh was a very military, muscular Turbo. There were effective cameos too from Ben Heppner, Greg Dahl, John MacMaster and Roger Honeywell, among others, and rather more than a cameo from Anna-Sophie Neher as the maid Lavia. She impressed on her main stage COC debut. (Odd to think that the last time Ambur and Greg appeared on stage together it was as Tosca and Scarpia!) The chorus and orchestra and conductor Johannes Debus were all up to their usual high standard.
So there we have it. A new work. A very bold concept not quite pulled off. A bit of an ovum curati. There are four more performances on the 21st, 23rd, 25th and 27th of this month.
Photo credits: Michael Cooper