Hadrian: An Ancient Love Story 

By Andrew Wagner-Chazalon

The Roman emperor Hadrian lies before a tomb, nearly catatonic with grief as he mourns the death of his lover. As courtiers try to engage him and gossip about him, Hadrian is only able to utter one word: the young man’s name, Antinous.

Thus begins Hadrian, which saw its world premiere at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in October of 2018. This is the first time the COC has commissioned a new work in nearly 20 years, but much of the buzz surrounding Hadrian – by composer Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor – has focused on the homosexual relationship at its heart. Perhaps this isn’t surprising: as Wainwright has noted, the opera world has long been a safe place for gay musicians and fans, but until very recently the on-stage relationships have been almost universally heterosexual.

Hadrian’s story is ideally suited to opera, a tale of passion and longing, of political battles and mysterious death. Probably the only reason it hasn’t been told through opera before now is that the world was not ready for a tale of guiltless love between two men.

The Greek Taste

In the second century AD, when Hadrian ruled over the Roman empire, it was acceptable for powerful men to have young male lovers, often slaves – “the Greek taste,” as one of the characters in this opera scoffingly puts it. But Hadrian and Antinous lived much more as equal partners, and when Antinous died in mysterious circumstances, Hadrian mourned him for years. He built an entire city in his honour, and had him declared a god, and his villa near Rome had more than 40 statues of Antinous.

Wainwright says he has been fascinated by this story for years, and naturally turned to it for this, his second foray into the world of opera. He is best known outside the opera world as a singer-songwriter, a composer and performer of lush, dense pop songs. In the operatic world, he is free to engage with sounds that are less obviously melodic, or that operate on much longer melodic lines than a four-minute pop song allows.

For the most part, it is the gentler, sadder passages of music that work best. There are some delicate touches that are pure delight – the solo clarinet that opens the opera speaks of Hadrian’s loneliness and passion in a way that the brassy choruses don’t. When Thomas Hampson (Hadrian) wails Antinous’s name, holding the same note for all three syllables again and again, the effect is chilling.

Sabina’s Breath-taking Aria

One of the most powerful moments comes in the second act, when we meet Hadrian’s wife, Sabina. She deeply loves her husband, and desperately wants his attention. Ambur Braid is magnificent in the role, her soaring soprano is absolutely mesmerizing as she pours out her yearning in a breathtakingly beautiful aria, pleading with her husband to look at her, to see her rather than looking through her. “Will you have Egypt with me?” she sings, heartbreakingly imploring Hadrian to spend time with her as they travel in Egypt.

This sets up a deft lyrical touch a few scenes later when Hadrian, newly-smitten with Antinous, asks him the same question: “Will you have Egypt with me?” The question rings like a slap, and underscores Sabina’s later desire for revenge.

Another vocal highlight comes from bass David Leigh, making his COC debut as Turbo, Hadrian’s friend and advisor. He mistrusts Antinous, disapproves of the relationship, and longs to see the Emperor return to duties of state. Leigh’s voice has the solidity of an oak timber, and if anything it seems to become stronger as the evening progresses.

There are many more strong performances to be enjoyed as well. Karitta Mattila and Roger Honeywell are both in delightful form as Plotina and Trajan, the ghosts who visit and counsel Hadrian. And up-and-coming tenor Isaiah Bell brings a light, buoyant tone and mesmerizing stage presence to the role of Antinous. There’s even an unexpected treat as legendary tenor Ben Heppner steps out of retirement to take on the role of Dinarchus.

Director Peter Hinton, along with set designer Michael Gianfrancesco and lighting designer Bonnie Beecher have done a superb job, using some relatively simple elements – massive black walls for the catacombs of Hadrian’s palace – along with some extremely creative use of falling sand to convey the deserts of Egypt.

This production will only play for seven performances at the COC, but watch for it to be remounted by other companies in the years to come. Running concurrently at the COC is  Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (until November 3).

The season resumes in the new year with Strauss’s Elektra (January 26), Atom Egoyan’s production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte (February 5), the massively popular La Boheme (April 15), and wraps up with Otello on April 27.

For further details, visit the COC website at www.coc.ca

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Andrew Wagner-Chazalon has been writing professionally for several decades. He has lived in the UK, Australia and Canada, and currently enjoys luxurious things in Muskoka, a region the New York Times calls “the Hamptons of the North.”