This was the second ever performance of Rufus Wainwright’s second opera, Hadrian, which tells the story of Emperor Hadrian’s final day of his life, as he mourns his dead male lover. I should say at the outset that this is only the third 21st century opera I’ve ever seen, most of the operas I know well are from the 20th century or earlier and so I cannot really comment at how this opera fits in with contemporary operas, except to say that it was more conservative than one of the other 21st century operas I saw, but that one was known for how radical it was.
So first, let me say that this is, to the best of my knowledge, an audaciously “gay” opera. It claims that Hadrian’s homosexuality has been buried in history because it was problematic for Romans, not because of the sex but because Hadrian elevated his partner to equal status, something which was considered dangerous and improper. In Act III there is simulated gay sex. I don’t know if there’s a precedent in the history of opera for that, at least in opera commissioned for mainstream opera companies opera, so if audacity is something you’re interested in, you might find how brazenly, openly gay this opera is compelling. If that makes you uncomfortable, there is only the one scene, and the rest of it is much more along the lines of a traditional opera, only one of the female roles is a male role instead.
On to the music. Though I have read a review that says the opera is over-orchestrated – and the orchestra was huge and occasionally drowned out some of the voices – I generally liked the music. People have criticized it for being too busy but I guess I like my opera busy and full of interesting touches. It’s funny that opera critics find it melodramatic, because the music was pretty modern – I don’t get the idea that it’s Romantic – and, to me, modern (20th century) “classical” music is not melodramatic. But I think I get what they’re trying to say, which is that there are portions in the score that are louder than they need to be. As someone who likes that kind of thing, this didn’t bother me at all. In fact I liked it.
But the reason I liked it is because it sounded like music I like. I felt like his music wore its influences on its sleeve. I noticed influences from Igor Stravinsky, George Gershwin, Bernard Herrmann and John Adams, and there might have been a few others I couldn’t place. (I sort of get how, at times, some of the music could be viewed as influenced by late Romantic, but I heard more modernism and minimalism myself.) So though I enjoyed the music, it also felt like he didn’t do a good job of combining the influences in a way where they stopped being obvious.
As I said at the outset, I don’t know how this compared to other opera being written right now, but this was enjoyable for me and whatever concerns I had that something Wainwright wrote would be too Classical or too Romantic for my tastes have been eradicated. If he writes another, I will go see it.