When the curtain rises for the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian on October 13, 2018 audience members will be the first to experience a sleek and provocative new work. The opera reunites the all-star creative team behind 2017’s Louis Riel, led by Canadian stage director Peter Hinton. With a libretto from Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor, Hadrian explores the life and legacy of the Roman emperor, in the wake of his young lover’s death. The production draws from a number of contemporary influences to transpose Hadrian and Antinous’ story from the pages of history to the here and now, driving home the enduring relevance of this epic, ancient love story. Hadrian runs for seven performances on October 13, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 2018.
“It’s tremendously exciting to give birth to this new work,” says COC Music Director Johannes Debus, who conducts the COC Orchestra through a score with a rich and colourful orchestral palette. “Hadrian’s vitality, elegance, and beauty is disarming, effectively combining orchestral elements to convey the range of powerful emotions throughout the opera.”
Acclaimed director Peter Hinton leads some of the industry’s best design talent in bringing Hadrian’s story to life. Fresh off his work at this year’s Shaw Festival, where his production of Oh! What a Lovely War was called “educating, entertaining, heartbreaking” (Toronto Star), Hinton says one of the biggest challenges in directing Hadrian is two-fold: “It’s about telling a story that people think they know – and telling a story that people don’t know at all.” He adds that Hadrian’s story is unique, consisting of equal parts history, romance, and politics. “There is passion and treachery, love and war, spirits and magic, and a journey through ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt. The opera chronicles this liminal place in history where Imperial Rome ended and the rise of monotheism began.”
Canadian Michael Gianfrancesco has created a sense of fluidity, using a set that changes in scale and composition to reflect an amorphous sense of time. The seasoned set designer says audiences can expect to see traces of Roman architecture that have been stripped of detail and rendered into glossy black surfaces. Gianfrancesco describes it as feeling like “a death space, a place of mourning, memories, and of remembering and recalling history.”
Canadian costume designer Gillian Gallow says that in order to create an extremely modern and high-impact feel, she aimed for a “dramatically Roman” aesthetic. “If we were to do this in a historical Roman sense, the colours would be much more muted,” says Gallow. “But to make it theatrical, the colours we use are more intense, more extreme.” Other sources of inspiration include the gold leaf work of painter Gustav Klimt, a Greek-inspired fashion runway collection from Versace, and the vibrant, graphic imagery of ancient Minoan frescoes.
Hadrian features video projection designed by Laurie-Shawn Borzovoy and lighting designed by Bonnie Beecher. Beecher says strategic side illumination will appear to suspend artists in a sea of blackness. “It creates the sense that they are floating and small in a large world,” she adds. “This, along with video, can have a very powerful effect. The hope is to create beauty, with a heightened sense of time and place.”
Choreography from Denise Clarke adds further resonance to the depiction of a world where all is not what it seems. Dancers are woven throughout the storyline, representative of Hadrian’s desire for his love and also the mythical Ferrymen of the Nile, tasked with carrying souls to the underworld.
Composer Rufus Wainwright has long drawn inspiration from the Romantic tradition of grand opera, a passion that led to his first operatic work, Prima Donna, in 2009. For the internationally acclaimed Canadian-American singer-songwriter, translating Hadrian’s story into a score that reflected the complexity of his state and circumstance was a true labour of love: “My Hadrian…is a surreal romp through time and space, mixing true occurrences with complete fabrication in order to illustrate a vivid ‘creative snapshot’ of what the end of the Classical era may have felt like.” In penning the libretto, award-winning playwright Daniel MacIvor steps into new creative territory; the Canadian theatre veteran says his work on this opera carries a weight that is deeply personal: “As a gay man, not to have known Hadrian’s story felt like I had been robbed of something, of a historical figure that somehow validated my love.”
American baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role and Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as the former empress Plotina make their company debuts. Their performances are filled with an emotional charge that will be sure to stimulate you. Hampson’s Hadrian is epic, stoic and aching with adoration that one can not help but swoon over. Mattila brings girl power to a whole new level as one of Hadrian’s advocates. Canadian-American tenor Isaiah Bell sings Antinous, with a fervour that will make your knees knock. Soprano Ambur Braid, is Hadrian’s wife Sabina; eloquent and effervescent in the same breath. American bass David Leigh adds a fluidness to his Turbo, head of Hadrian’s military. Smile during legendary Canadian tenor Ben Heppner’s cameo appearance as Dinarchus.
Hadrian marks the second COC production for the powerhouse creative team behind 2017’s Louis Riel: celebrated set designer Michael Gianfrancesco, costume designer Gillian Gallow, and lighting designer Bonnie Beecher, all led by boundary-pushing Canadian director Peter Hinton. Joining the team for Hadrian is projection designer Laurie-Shawn Borzovoy (the COC’s Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung) and choreographer Denise Clark. Ensure that you grab tickets before Hadrian’s close on October 27, 2018.