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The COC premiered singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor's much-hyped Hadrian in an undeniably lavish production (seen Oct. 17th) that accentuated the opera's central purpose and passion: to impart a sincere, cathartic celebration of gay male desire to contemporary opera.

The COC premiered singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor's much-hyped Hadrian in an undeniably lavish production (seen Oct. 17th) that accentuated the opera's central purpose and passion: to impart a sincere, cathartic celebration of gay male desire to contemporary opera. Despite the unevenness brought about by its combined excesses of score, script, and staging, the production's best moments held nothing back in attaining and exalting Wainwright's vision.

Hadrian follows the titular 21st-century Roman emperor as he revisits his fated love affair with the youth Antinous, leading up to the latter's drowning in the Nile under suspicious circumstances. Though inspired by history, MacIvor's story is largely speculative, and indeed it almost entirely shirks both psychological and chronological realism. The libretto is instead driven by its emotional dynamics, which are brought to the fore through distinct and compelling vocal performances by the lead singers.

In the title role, baritone Thomas Hampson was suave and commanding, but also raw and human, tactfully drawing on his impressive vocal range to convey Hadrian's emotional transformations. While Hampson's warm, confident voicing cemented Hadrian as a wise and trustworthy leader in Act II, the character's life-changing romance with Antinous in Act III saw him muster unexpected vocal leaps, resonant howls, and heartrending enunciations of profound need. His passionate and uninhibited performance combined the most impressive aspects of classical grandeur with a distinctly modern emotional range.

Hadrian's relationship with Sabina, his neglected wife, injects another strikingly contemporary edifice into Hadrians emotional landscape, deftly capturing a marriage bereft of intimacy. Soprano Ambur Braid's performance arguably outshone both that of her onstage husband and her treatment in the libretto, which unfortunately sidelines her character by the opera's close. Nonetheless, Braid exuded resilience and sass from her first appearance in Act II, and her singing leveraged this emotional verisimilitude with outstanding high notes accentuating the aria's palpable sense of despair.

As Antinous, tenor Isaiah Bell gave a haunting performance that left the audience wanting more. His voice was at times clear and piercing, but at others ghostly, distant, and almost grainy, as if lingering from another era. Soprano Karita Mattila and bass David Leigh also contributed their own distinct and memorable sounds. Mattila sang with an imposing virtuosity as Plotina, the proud wife of the deceased emperor Trajan, although clumsy staging muddled her character's significance in the later acts. Meanwhile, Leigh's formal, brassy voice brought credence to his role as the pragmatic head of Hadrian's military.

For better and worse, the production's music was marked by exuberance and excess: the arrangement teemed with manic climbs, crashing falls, twinkling accents, and an enormous range of slides, distortions, and other special effects that pushed each of the orchestra's instruments to its limit. Most of the accompaniment was frenetic and rambunctious, unevenly flitting between punctuating the singers' voices and simply overpowering them. However, the orchestration did finally simmer down to complement some of the score s strongest arias. Everything seemed to come together at these key moments, replicating the innovative and multi-layered, yet cohesive tone of Wainwright's pop compositions on a genuinely operatic scale.

Similarly, Peter Hinton's directorial energy was best spent on those scenes that abandoned overly complex plot dynamics in favour of the emotional depths that make Hadrian truly unique. Immediately following the intermission, Hadrian and Antinous embrace on a lavish bed in the middle of an entrancingly dark stage. Meanwhile, the starkly lit, statuesque bodies of four male dancers form pairs on either side, emblematically mimicking the two lovers' poses. This scene was minimally staged (at least by this production's standards), yet its beauty was overwhelming. Everything else seemed to fall away amid its indulgence of gay male desire.

Aside from providing a much needed sense of movement and continuity, the dancers were also the most ancient Roman-looking aspect of the production design, making them a lynchpin of the performance's visual drama. But they also served another, slyer function. That these gorgeous, nearly naked men were there for eye candy as much as ambiance was lost on no one, and their presence laid the groundwork for the production's spectacular exhibition of high camp. Throughout the performance, audiences were treated to lines played for laughs (one of the libretto's only Latin lines gravely states that "everything sounds better in Latin"), the inexplicable appearance of a real-life greyhound, and Hadrian's donning an impossibly sparkly silver robe for an over-the-top finale taken straight from musical theatre.

At their worst, many of the staging's flourishes simply felt gratuitous, threatening the story's cohesion and overshadowing its rich historical sources. Nonetheless, Hadrian's premiere production did two things exceedingly well: it elevated a lush range of gay experience to the dizzying heights of Romantic Grand Opera, and it accomplished a remarkably entertaining blend of modern camp and pop culture with the unique indulgences of the operatic mode. While these achievements are not enough to warrant another 20-year wait for the COC's next commission, efforts in Hadrian's vein should be commended and encouraged--as well as thoroughly enjoyed.--John Nyman is a participant in the Emerging Arts Critics Program

Caption: Thomas Hampson (Hadrian) & Isaiah Bell (Antinous) in Canadian Opera Company's Hadrian
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Author:Nyman, John
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Dec 22, 2018
Words:852
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