In Wainwright’s ‘Hadrian’, Musical Merit, Iffy Libretto

Isaiah Bell, as Antinous, in a scene from the world premiere of Rufus Wainright’s ‘Hadrian.’
(Photos by Michael Cooper)

TORONTO – So many ingredients were there: an all-consuming passion, a problematic triangle, supernatural visitations, the vicissitudes of empire, not to mention a stellar cast, a hardworking orchestra and chorus, a jolly good ballet troupe, and a dream production team assembled by the Canadian Opera Company.

A tender moment between Hadrian (Thomas Hampson) and Antinous (Bell)

Just why Hadrian has turned out to be such a stew is the issue of the moment. The only more interesting question is whether a thorough revision will give Rufus Wainwright’s well-meaning (and often well-scored) second attempt at opera a better chance of entering the repertoire.

It was by no means clear after the Oct. 17 performance in the Four Seasons Centre that this Canadian-American composer, better known as a pop singer, had found a suitable librettist in the acclaimed playwright Daniel MacIvor. Sometimes the language took poetic flight, but there were also clunkers like “Leave me alone” and “I know this night, this fulsome moon” that made me wonder (as have others, including Wainwright himself) whether English, minus the genius of Benjamin Britten, is really an ideal medium for lyric discourse on the opera stage.

More troublesome than the self-conscious stodginess of the words (often mirrored by stentorian recitative) was the muddle of the plot. The idea of returning old Hadrian via flashback to stalwart middle age was fundamentally sound, but a few broad hints regarding “treachery” in Act 1 all but gave away the fate of his beloved Antinous. Even after the ghosts of the emperor Trajan and his wife Plotina struck a Faustian bargain with Hadrian, it was not clear whether they were “real” characters or figments of Hadrian’s feverish imagination. Unlike Banquo in Verdi’s Macbeth, whose appearances at dinner are brief and decisive, these talkative spirits greatly outstayed their welcome.

Other odd things happened that were no less odd for having some historical or literary foundation. Two Sibyls in disguise effectively doubled the onstage confusion. It is a fact that the feast of Robigalia was celebrated with the sacrifice of a dog, but this detail hardly made for compelling drama, even when Hadrian stipulated the replacement of the poor pooch by a lamb. The suicide of the imperial physician (probably suggested by Memoires d’Hadrien, the 1951 novel by Marguerite Yourcenar that did much to “out” the emperor) seemed sudden and gratuitous.

Ambur Braid, as Hadrian’s beleaguered wife, with Hampson

It was also evident as Hadrian drew laboriously to a formulaic choral close that MacIvor and Wainwright had not decided whether to view the monotheistic Jews and early Christians who created a dilemma for the Romans (including the ghosts who supposedly depend on Roman belief for their immortality) as victims or troublemakers. The fact that Hadrian, who ruled from AD 117 to 138, authorized the ruthless suppression of Judea (thenceforward Palestine) sits ill with his reputation as the third of the Five Good Emperors.

MacIvor tried to resolve this problem by giving Hadrian an extended aria near the end in which he regrets crushing the revolt but expects his subjects (and the spectators) to honor him for having “loved.” Perhaps it is up to the individual to decide whether this constitutes a valid redemption. Elsewhere, the commander-in-chief of the western world is portrayed as ailing, feckless, and indifferent to the affairs of state. The only affair this emperor cares about is the one he had with Antinous, a Greek youth who was found in the Nile. It is a credit to the charisma, experience, and still-firm voice of baritone Thomas Hampson, 63, that we were able to sustain some interest in Hadrian through all his bawling and complaining.

The love scene that opens Act 3 has already acquired independent notoriety for its depiction of same-sex love. Much kissing precedes the consummation, which happens under a sheet. Perhaps this is a breakthrough, even as late as 2018. The interlude was most remarkable for the passionate music that it elicited from Wainwright, who has an ear for sweeping strings and seems to appreciate how a simple rising interval can be marshaled to grand musical purpose.

There were other musical highlights, including a jaunty ballet between Acts 1 and 2 (performed with great flair by five near-nude males who also strike statuesque poses throughout the drama) and a bluesy aria for Plotina, delivered with conviction by Karita Mattila, whose strong soprano was inflected with a certain contralto hoot. While there is a good deal of local dissonance and percussion in Wainwright’s score, the composer never overwhelms the voices. Sometimes he settles back into something like a tough Broadway sound. It served him well in the aria for Sabina, Hadrian’s wife. Soprano Ambur Braid surely touched a few hearts with her clarion lament over a loveless marriage.

Karita Mattila (Plotina), Hampson, and Roger Honeywell (Trajan)

Tenor Isaiah Bell was in sturdy form for Antinous’ big Act 3 solo, in which the emperor’s young favorite becomes a high-minded advocate of tolerance and inclusion. It was a surprising transformation given the duet before intermission, which communicated little but bland infatuation on the part of Hadrian. Maybe make that blind infatuation. Director Peter Hinton, who managed blocking effectively enough, erred grievously in dressing poor Antinous for much of the time in boxer shorts.

The senators, soldiers, and citizens who worry (to all appearances, rightly) about the mental health of the emperor were well cast. American bass David Leigh applied a dark if monotone instrument to the role of Turbo, the officer who takes action. Ben Heppner was in ringing voice as a senator who sings the praises of Hadrian. Officially retired, this acclaimed tenor (at 62, younger than Hampson) sounds like he could make a comeback.

Conductor Johannes Debus did an admirable job of balancing voices with the COC Orchestra and lending momentum to an overlong score. Vocals were heavy on the whole notes; musical interest often resided in the pit. Gillian Gallow’s costumes were made mostly of period drapery. The simple set by Michael Gianfrancesco was dominated by a sarcophagus. As for the raging river and starry skies projected as a backdrop, these were serviceable but not as vivid as they might have been. I wonder about the real potential of digital technology to enhance the operatic experience. It always seems a step or two behind the cellphone in my pocket.

But I remain quite convinced of Wainwright’s ability as an art-music composer. This not-quite-full-time pop star has an ear for motif-worthy melody, harmonic motion, and instrumental color. It is difficult to think of other composers to compare him to for the good reason that his music is not derivative. As I rewind the score in my head – an action made feasible by its musical merit – I can imagine easily a 20-minute suite of orchestral highlights.

As a two-and-a-half-hour opera, not including intermission, Hadrian needs an overhaul. Wainwright has spoken about a revival in Paris. A new libretto in French would not be amiss. Or maybe Latin. Even English. It would be worth the effort.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.

A scene from the world premiere of Rufus Wainright’s ‘Hadrian’ by the Canadian Opera Company