THE reviews are in and Rufus Wainwright's long-awaited opera about Antinous and Hadrian was a triumph this weekend at the Canadian Opera Company.
The opera by Wainright and Daniel McIvor, entitled HADRIAN, got a standing ovation during repeated curtain calls from a sold-out capacity audience at the Toronto opera house.
"Finally, after hundreds of years of doomed heterosexual love on the Opera stage, Rufus Wainwright and the Canadian Opera Company gave us some doomed homosexual love to enjoy. Thanks, Hadrian!" critic Christopher Butcher tweeted on Twitter.
"Just came back from Hadrian and I am SHAKEN that was so amazing and Thomas Hampson was perfect in the role as Hadrian. And as always Rufus Wainwright wrote a phenomenal score. I'll never forget it," another reviewer tweeted.
In the audience were a number of followers of Antinous and one of them posted this notice to us:
"Sold out house. Audience rapt for the entire performance, barely moved. The libretto is such a fascinating story. I was moved several times. Sets and costumes are effective. Performances outstanding. There's a curious feeling in this production as if you're looking at the ancient world from their standpoint, not ours looking back. It really grew on me. Some of it is so sublime. The past really is a foreign country."
The most gushing praise came from arts critic Leslie Barcza, who wrote:
"There are some wonderful performances, great moments to report.
"First and foremost, the love story between two men presented on the opera stage brought an eruption of applause early in Act III ... While we were presented with a homosexual encounter, everything was tasteful, discreet.
"I was intrigued that Ambur Braid (as Empress Sabina) effortlessly stole the show, in a character who is far more sympathetic than one might expect. The jealous wife of a gay man, she has the two most dynamic moments musically, a pair of arias that, for whatever reason, are the moments of greatest inspiration & commitment from Rufus Wainwright. In this respect perhaps Wainwright is being truly Canadian, in being so self-effacing."
The opera, which explores the relationship between Roman Emperor Hadrian and the young Antinous, runs October 13–27 at Toronto’s Four Seasons Center.
Peter Hinton directed a cast that includes baritone Thomas Hampson as Hadrian and renowned tenor Isaiah Bell as Antinous, with Karita Mattila as Plotina.
Over four acts and three locations ... Hadrian’s villa, Greece, and Egypt ... the opera "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," Wainwright says.
It opens on the last night of Hadrian's life in 138 AD. He wants to know the truth about Antinous' mysterious death eight years earlier in October of the year 130 AD.
Was it an accident? Or murder? The plot twists, political deals are struck amidst power struggles, deceptions, and visiting ghosts. And then it ends where it started.
But not before a love scene: "I realized that there are no sex scenes written into opera," Wainwright tells The New York Times, "let alone anal sex scenes. I think for some people it will be powerful to see gay love represented in the larger-than-life fashion that only opera can provide," he adds.
"When I first read the fabulous "Memoirs of Hadrian" by Marguerite Yourcenar, a novel which inspired at least three generations of gay men, I was instantly struck with the idea of transforming this historical subject into operatic form," Wainwright says.
Here is an exclusive excerpt from the opera's tender love scene between Hadrian and Antinous:
And here are more photos from the gala premiere night: