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Ambur Braid (Sabina) and Thomas Hampson in the title role of Canadian Opera Company’s Hadrian; Photo credit: Michael Cooper

Karita Mattila (Plotina), Thomas Hampson (Hadrian) Roger Honeywell (Trajan) and
dancers in a scene from Canadian Opera Company’s Hadrian
​Photo credit: Michael Cooper

There aren’t many operatic composers who, while premièring a major new opera, are also preparing for a major concert tour with their band. But then, there aren’t any composers like Rufus Wainwright, the Canadian-American singer-songwriter who happens to have composed his latest opera for the Canadian Opera Company, its first newly commissioned work of this century. Hadrian is not his only opera. His first, Prima Donna, gave him the impetus for taking on this latest venture, a production wildly anticipated across the operatic world. Last night’s performance was the second of seven this month.

Hadrian is not one of those avant-garde, atonal pieces filled with incomprehensible jarring crashes, bangs and screams. Instead, and not without an abundance of dissonance, it was written by one who knows the voice. It is a grand opera of the twenty-first century derived from nineteenth century traditions and musical styles. It is a direct descendent of Berlioz, Bizet, Verdi, and Wagner. It is a big story with big themes; it has colourful pageantry, first-rate singers, dancers, large orchestra and chorus, live animals and lighting effects that are both symbolic and dramatically powerful. It has striking arias, duets, and ensemble numbers. Nothing is missing from the grand opera tradition. At the same time, its themes of tolerance for homosexual love and religious differences are twenty-first century issues. This opera faces them head-on.

Thomas Hampson (Hadrian) Isaiah Bell (Antinous)
in Canadian Opera Company's Hadrian;
hoto credit: Michael Cooper

​​Review by David Richards
Toronto ON October 18th 2018

Isaiah Bell (Antinous) with dancers in Canadian Opera Company’s Hadrian
​Photo credit: Michael Cooper

A scene from Canadian Opera Company’s Hadrian; Photo credit: Michael Cooper

Wainwright and Canadian playwright and actor Daniel MacIvor, the opera’s librettist, worked together for five years bringing the opera to the stage. The creative team, which previously worked together in the revival of Louis Riel, consists of Director Peter Hinton, Set Designer Michael Gianfrancesco, Costume Designer Gillian Gallow, Lighting Designer Bonnie Beecher, Chorus Master Sandra Horst, Conductor Johannes Debus, Projection Designer Laurie-Shawn Borzovoy, and choreographer Denise Clarke. Their work came together to create an imaginative, daring and emotionally intense production. 

The five dancers, wearing only jock-straps, were a sort of Greek chorus commenting and reflecting the action downstage. The large chorus added a good deal of colour in addition to its fine singing. 

This is an opera that is enhanced by audience preparation. Wayne Gooding, former editor of Opera Canada, gave an informative pre-performance lecture in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. For all the opera’s complexities, however, it is very accessible and last night’s audience responded with enthusiasm. Let’s hope that the world-première this month is the beginning of a long life for this opera. It is worthy of a broad audience. The COC is to be commended for taking on new Canadian works, something that they plan to do with some degree of regularity in the coming years.

The opera continues its run with performances on October 19, 21, 23, 25, and 27 at the Four Seasons Centre.

The cast of singers was impressive. Each stepped up to the challenge of Wainwright’s music and Hinton’s direction. The cast is a mix of big-name stars along with COC ensemble members and alumnae. Of the fourteen solo roles, the veteran American Baritone Thomas Hampson stood out for his emotional depth portraying the distraught and dying emperor Hadrian. The young Antinous, Isaac Bell, seen recently in Arabella,was totally convincing as the youthful lover who becomes the voice of tolerance. His vocal clarity was dazzling. Ambur Braid as Sabina, Hadrian’s wife, seen recently in The Magic Flute and Ariodante, provided wonderfully lyrical moments, particularly as she is moved by the love between Hadrian and Antinous. There isn’t a weak link in the cast. David Leigh as Turbo, Roger Honeywell as Trajan¸ Karita Mattila as Plotina and Ben Heppner as an aging senator each have wonderful moments. Others in the cast include Anna-Sophie Neher as Lavia, John MacMaster as Fabius, as well as Thomas Glenn, Joell Allison and Samuel Chan as senators.

The large orchestra is integral to the impact of the work. Conductor Johannes Debus who this month is conducting both Eugene Onegin and Hadrian is masterful at allowing the orchestra all the power it can summon in climactic moments while keeping a balance with singers. The lyrical undertones in the affectionate moments were especially poignant. Opening the opera with a solo clarinet underscored the loneliness of one on his deathbed, still mourning the loss of his lover. The harp and strings in Sabina’s tender aria make for a special reprieve from the dissonance of the brass and percussion which play prominently throughout. Wainwright, known mainly for his song-writing, shows himself as remarkably adept at orchestration. Nevertheless, the long vocal lines and the extreme ranges of his music over a mostly dissonant orchestra is most extraordinary. 

The opera is the story of the death of the Roman emperor known for building a wall across Britain in the second century AD. The story is embellished with ghosts or spirits and layered with a backdrop of the political/religious conflict between the Romans and Judeo-Nazarenes. The emperor Hadrian is given a chance to look back at two days in his life by two supernatural apparitions, the first day being when he met his lover Antinous and the second, the day when Hadrian’s beloved Antinous died. The price for his time-travel was his signature on an order to destroy Judea and its monotheistic religion. In a Faustian way he sold his soul for two last glimpses of his lover. Nevertheless, by living his truth, he was able to enter death at peace with his beloved. 

Ambur Braid (Sabina) and Thomas Hampson in the title role of Canadian Opera Company’s Hadrian; Photo credit: Michael Cooper

Hadrian: A new Grand Opera that resonates with today’s world

Conductor Johannes Debus and COC Orchestra; ​Photo credit: Gaetz Photography