Cher Public

Murder on the orientation express

The saying goes that no one hits a home run with their first opera. Rufus Wainwright seemed determined to prove this point and then some with Prima Donna, with its risibly clichéd libretto and music that was a pale imitation of Adriana Lecouvreur

Leaving himself only room to go up, he has done more than merely improve on his first effort with Hadrian, his second opera. This time around, he is not his own librettist and has established playwright, Daniel MacIvor, as his partner in crime. In the intervening years since Prima Donna, he has also learned orchestration (and how!).

This opera comes at a time of high expectations, being the first full-scale commission by the Canadian Opera Company in two decades. The company has lavished resources on the production by Peter Hinton, casting the opera with a mix of young Canadian talent and starry veterans.

Wainwright takes to his newly developed orchestration skills with gusto. In his next opera, I hope to see these powers reined in. There’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink exuberance to his craft. Singers often compete with a full percussion section and are frequently drowned out. More critically, the piece is so over-orchestrated that the drama is dulled. Every moment of tension queues the orchestra to explode like Verdi’s Otello. The orchestra constantly tells the audience that something important has happened to the point that nothing sounds important after a while.

Upon their first meeting, Antinous tells Hadrian his name and the orchestra predictably erupts in triumphant glitter. This kind of clichéd grandeur pervades the piece.

The story begins with Hadrian on his deathbed. He is consumed by the mysterious death of his lover Antinous a year prior and has no ears for his advisors’ pleas to do something about the Jews and Nazarenes. Monotheism threatens the Roman gods and belief system. His senators and particularly his friend and army leader, Turbo, are determined to have his signature before he dies.

Left alone, Hadrian is visited by the ghosts of Emperor Trajan and his wife Plotina who had secured Hadrian’s place as the leader of the Roman Empire. They too are concerned about the Jews and Nazarenes and strike a deal with the dying emperor. They will take him back to relive crucial moments with Antinous in exchange for his signature on a decree that would doom Judea.

In the second act, we go back seven years in time to Greece, at the feast of Robigalia, where Hadrian first met Antinous. In the third act, we move forward to the night of his death. In the fourth act, we are back in the present day and Hadrian confronts his memories and his promise to crush the Jews.

A key player in the drama is Hadrian’s wife Sabina who tries in vain to connect with her husband and later reluctantly takes part in a plot to kill his young lover.

Within the first act alone, Wainwright displays more musical ideas than in all of Prima Donna. There is real musical imagination on display which is why it’s a shame that so much of the music is swept up in generalised atmosphere.

This is a very serious story, told seriously. MacIvor attempts levity by peppering the libretto with occasional jokes. These humorous moments tickle the funny bone but often seem to come out of nowhere. His libretto has its strengths and weaknesses. It has moments of genuine operatic potential (often left unrealized by his collaborator) and also moments of awkwardness, like the poorly executed finale. More on that later.

Wainwright is determined to offer a spectacle and that intention overrides all other considerations. When the story travels back in time to the first meeting of Hadrian and Antinous, the audience can be forgiven for feeling like they’ve been transported back to the Technicolor of 1960’s Hollywood. I half expected Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra to emerge atop a golden barge. In moments like this, Wainwright’s soundscape reminded me of Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus.

The pervading quality of the score is atmosphere and Wainwright’s expression is always dialed up to maximum. This creates a sameness that permeates the piece and robs dramatic moments of their potency. If one were to separate the music from the words, it would be impossible to tell the consequential moments from the mundane ones.

In the second act, Plotina appears in disguise as a Sybil (fortune teller) and makes a portentous prophecy. MacIvor sets things up for a chilling moment and an effective conclusion to the opera’s first half, but Wainwright gives the material the same glossy treatment as the moments surrounding it.

In the third act, when Antinous and some senators discuss how Rome should deal with the Jews and the question of monotheism, the music doesn’t sound any different than less important exchanges. All is perfumed atmosphere.

Wading through the relentless surface gloss, one occasionally find moments of dramatic truth. Sabina’s aria “Will you have Egypt with me?” is such a moment, written with real intent. Too often, Wainwright settles for superficial expression – the music pretty and striking, but without purpose.

Another highlight comes in the third act when we see Hadrian’s and Antinous’s final night together. Wainwright scores the moment with lovely chamber writing. Using small resources, he writes music that is genuinely moving and expresses the two characters’ deep affection for each other. At moments like this, we move from atmosphere to something more specific and meaningful.

Sabina sees the two lovers and, for the first time, realizes the depth of her husband’s love for Antinous. The duet becomes a trio as she joins in with anguished cries of “He loves.”  MacIvor’s spare use of words hits the mark as she repeats the line over and over.

When Wainwright scales back the orchestra, he achieves moments of distinction. Antinous sings his first scene with minimal accompaniment. While the exposed writing is challenging for the singer, it adroitly expresses the character’s vulnerability. I would have like more thoughtful writing such as this. Wainwright obviously cares about the characters but works against himself by often erring on the side of grandeur for grandeur’s sake.

Interestingly, almost all of the important moments are signaled through the orchestra (usually loudly) and Wainwright’s ability to tell story through the voice is limited. This is particularly surprising coming from such a fine and experienced songwriter.

Key lines are thrown away and set as an afterthought. One such moment comes near the end when Hadrian sings a monologue agonising over signing the order to crush Judea. This ought to be an important moment but there’s a generalised anguished quality to the vocal writing, sounding no different than Hadrian’s many cries of anguish that have come before. The monologue ends with the powerful words “This day is not done till none remains” but Wainwright throws the line away.

From a technical standpoint, Wainwright’s vocal writing is mostly singer friendly. At its best, it flows in lyrical arioso. At its weakest, it zigs and zags aimlessly.

Hadrian distinguishes itself by being a rare opera with a gay love story at its centre work. The creators and director Hintondo not shy away from subject matter. At the centre of the production is a daring sex scene in which Antinous tops his emperor. The staging is both unapologetically explicit and lovingly sensual.

The gay theme is echoed from the beginning through a troupe of five scantily dressed male dancers who first appear emulating statues in Romanesque poses. They are a constant presence in the production.

Michael Gianfranceso’s set creates a black marble box which is animated through splashes of colour and prominent use of projections on the rear wall.

Soprano Ambur Braid‘s Sabina is one of the clear standout elements of this production. Wainwright is at his most inspired writing for her character and she delivers her lines movingly, commanding attention in every scene. Vocally, her part makes use of her excellent legato with regular forays into her upper range, where her voice rings out passionately.

In the third act, Sabina disguises herself as the Sybil and vocally finds herself in Thomas Adès territory, asked to sing ungainly stratospheric music. I’ve heard this artist nail perfect high Fs, F-sharps, and Gs (Esclarmonde!) in the past but this was a section which I imagine will be rewritten should the opera be remounted with another singer. Even with the same soprano, it should be reconsidered.

Making his triumphant COC debut as the titular emperor, Thomas Hampson is in good late-career voice and gives himself over utterly to the character. The part is obviously written with his voice in mind and does not expose its weaknesses. The character is asked to carry the show, being on stage for much of the opera, but Hampson’s voice never betrays fatigue.

Also making her COC debut, Kartia Mattila‘s tone is often cloudy and her diction murky, with her music not always flattering to the voice. But ever the stage creature, she makes every moment count. And when the music does show off her voice to advantage, she scores vocal points too.

As the object of Hadrian’s affection, tenor Isaiah Bell displays a bright, firm lyric tenor, overcoming initial intonation problems in the exposed writing. He successfully portrays the character’s growing confidence from his first appearance to later scenes. He is presented as a delicate flower which belies the plot point that he once felled a wild boar to save Hadrian’s life, but that is a small quibble.

Occasionally phlegmy of tone, bass David Leigh gives a heartfelt performance as Turbo, the conflicted army leader who loves his Caesar and fears he has been led a stray by his young lover.

The cast features two former Tristans as Roman senators. Ben Heppner‘s voice has developed a wobble but he has the best diction of the cast and the voice retains its familiar bronzed brilliance. John Mac Master is given a chance to shine in an ode to wine in which his voice ringing out powerfully.

As the ghost of Trajan, tenor Roger Honeywell is frequently on stage with Mattila but is given little opportunity to leave a vocal mark.

Soprano Anna-Sophie Neher displays an attractive soprano but frequently has to fight to be heard above the orchestra.

Music Director Johannes Debus mines the vibrant orchestration for its full potential and the COC Orchestra responds in kind.

And now the ending. I am reminded of a line from the sitcom Frasier: “If less is more, then imagine how much more more would be.” This seems to be a guiding principal throughout the opera but especially the ending.

The personal and the political come together unsuccessfully. As Hadrian dies, he declares that his legacy shall be that “He loved” and those two words are repeated by other characters. Simultaneously, the chorus comes in full force with cries of “War” (in opposition to the Jews), sounding no different than the cries of “He loved”. Love and war come together awkwardly as the opera reaches a rambling and forceful conclusion.

Amongst all the spectacle, Hadrian joins the gods and is given a fabulously glittering robe, a generous gift from the estate of the late Monserrat Caballé (thank you, La Cieca, for the joke).

Hadrianis a mixed success and I find more weaknesses in it than strengths. But I am intrigued enough to hear and see more from this composer. After the experience of Prima Donna, I was frankly dreading Hadrian. Now I look forward to Wainwright’s next opus.

Photos: Michael Cooper