HADRIAN (World Premiere by the Canadian Opera Company)

HADRIAN (World Premiere by the Canadian Opera Company)

Music by Rufus Wainwright

Libretto by Daniel MacIvor

Directed by Peter Hinton

Featuring: Isaiah Bell, Ben Heppner, Amber Braid, David Leigh, Roger Honeywell, Karita, Mattel, Joel Allison, Samuel Chan, Thomas Glenn, Thomas Hampson, John Mac Master, Gregory Dahl, Annie Sophie Neher, Josh Fralick, Madelaine Ringo-Stauble

The opera, Hadrian, with music by Rufus Wainwright and libretto by Daniel MacIvor, is the first commission of a new work by the Canadian Opera Company in twenty years and as such it was eagerly anticipated and worthy of attention. The last opera commissioned by the COC was under the late Richard Bradshaw. The Golden Ass, with music composed by Randolph Peters and libretto by novelist and playwright Robertson Davies premiered at the Hummingbird Centre in 1999 and was budgeted at 1.8 million dollars.

I don’t know what the budget for Hadrian was but one can imagine it was probably pricey as evidenced by the number of underwriters mentioned in the program – everyone from the conductor (Johannes Debus) to the chorus members, it seems, had their own private sponsor.  Whatever the cost, the commission of new works should be celebrated and let us hope that it is not another two decades for the COC to commission a new work from the many deserving composers in waiting.

The opera’s libretto was adapted from the novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, by Belgian-born French writer Marguerite Yourcenar and concerns the life and death of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. It was first published in French in 1951 and is often cited as the first prominently published (and critically acclaimed) novel to openly portray a homosexual relationship although that credit might also be claimed by Gore Vidal’s bildungsroman, The City and the Pillar, which was published in 1948.

The critical reception given to Hadrian thus far has been muted. There are several reasons for this. First there is the score. Although Wainwright comes out of the tradition of popular song and is in no way a trained classical composer, this has not inhibited his talent or willingness to have a go at opera – nor should it. Wainwright’s score may not be food for the brain but it is certainly candy for the ear.

And he is in capable hands with conductor Johannes Debus. One can imagine Debus sitting with Wainwright early on in the creative process and pinning him down on the basics: will Hadrian be a tenor or a baritone; does this section need to have a strong brass sound or does it tilt more toward the strings (when in doubt it would seem that Debus went for the brass just to liven things up a bit). An early COC press release noted that Wainwright would be composing in “long tones”. Long is ok but languor can be troublesome. This is the kind of thing musicians have to think about when creating new work from a blank staff.

There is also the question of the libretto adapted by Daniel MacIvor from Yourcenar’s novel. It was interesting to read the “Composer’s Notes” in the program in which Wainwright comments more on the story of the opera than on musical composition and the methods he used when orchestrating, doing vocal arrangements, setting tempos and so forth.

Instead he concentrates on the legacy of Hadrian and how the Emperor’s good works were purposely destroyed by his many detractors. “…he was a productive and just ruler” Wainwright says. “This, of course, is heavily complicated by his massacre of Jews, which cannot be forgotten,…” Perhaps feeling that he is quickly getting himself down into the weeds here, he ends by saying, “But I am a composer, and therefore my armchair intellectual reach should be superseded by the music – music that I hope you enjoy.” In other words, over to you now Mr. MacIvor.

And herein lies the unenviable paradox that faced Daniel MacIvor in fashioning a libretto out of the novel. A Roman emperor who falls deeply, genuinely and sincerely in love with a much younger man and in the end sees his love taken from him in the most tragic way. An opera needs a sympathetic protagonist and it needs a love story. Certainly Rufus Wainwright understands that even popular songs need love stories and in Hadrian there is one literally for the ages.

The question is, can a hugely talented cast of singers and musicians overcome the problem of a protagonist who rails constantly on crushing Judea and the Nazarenes (who, let’s face it, were technically still Jews in ancient times) while still professing hope and goodness for all the world – this most articulately expressed through the character, Antinous (beautifully sung by Isaiah Bell)?

Although the libretto refers to an uprising in Judea that needed to be quelled by the Roman imperialism of the day under Hadrian, the actual events were much more than a flare up on the eastern frontier of Pax Romana. The revolt is described by scholars of the period as the Roman-Jewish War that left over half a million Jews dead and many more enslaved.

The opera, Hadrian, seeks to engage us more on the romantic passing of an era when the pantheistic gods of the Romans are being challenged and eclipsed by the rise of monotheism led by the Jews. The concluding scene suggests that whatever religion these men choose, the march to war through the ages will be relentless.

At the matinee performance I attended, after the intermission it was clear that a number of seats were empty at the Four Seasons Centre, abandoned by patrons voting with their feet. The applause at the end of the show was polite but certainly did not come with a standing ovation. Whether your investment in this project was by way of a significant sponsorship or simply through the purchase of one ticket, people will visibly express their support, or lack of it, in a variety of ways.

Hadrian concluded its run on October 27th, ironically and tragically the day 11 Jews were massacred in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


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