Opening night ended, how could it be otherwise, with an applause that lasted more than eight minutes, and Rufus Wainwright waving under a beautiful manila shawl and fantasy red shoes out of an electrifying Wizard of Oz. Behind were three hours of a musically beautiful opera at times, wild at others, and a staging where the universe of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe reigned. A massive use, more than three hundred projected photographs of the American, too illustrative at times, but which managed to unite Ancient Rome with a current, free, beautiful and plural gay sensibility.
Rufus Wainwright is touched by waste, waste of talent, charm and love given and received. For more than twenty years he has been proving his talent with dazzling albums like Want One, Poses or your last job Unfollow Rules. In addition, Wainwright is wanted in Spain. Critics and audiences follow him, and they adore that intimate air with which he is able to sing his own songs without imposition and with a clear melodic gift, or wonderful versions of either the Beatles or his beloved Judy Garland. And he lets himself be loved. A regular at the Nights of the Botanist in Madrid, a regular at Barcelona, in April he gave a concert at the Palau de la Música in Barcelona. Wainwright does not stop wasting good manners, humor and knowing how to be.
Around Wainwright gravitates that great media mixer around his figure and his great friendships, his courtship and other prosody: friend of Elton John, Joni Mitchelll, Yoko Ono, Chrissie Hynde… In addition, he is the father of a daughter of the mother of Lorca, the daughter of Leonard Cohen… The list of these types of stories of Hollywood cuché and divism is endless and perhaps not very relevant. The most important thing is that for each project he is able to surround himself with the best people. And so he did for the second opera of his career, Hadrian, which premiered in 2018 in Toronto with a staging in style, and which has arrived at the Teatro Real in a semi-staged concert version, a format that far from diminishing the proposal, modernizes it and gives it new readings. The libretto is by Daniel Maclvor, one of the most renowned authors, and featured one of the world’s great baritones, Thomas Hampson, a singer who also accompanies the production on his European tour.
nick cave in love
Hampson’s interpretation of Adriano is of a distinct vocal and interpretive quality. Wainwright’s compositional and musical manner is capable of turning this gentleman of opera and chamber music into a Nick Cave in love at times. That is perhaps one of the most remarkable virtues of the Canadian: bringing opera closer to the modern sensibility of the spectator and showing that this art, which is often valued as nineteenth-century, is not so or does not have to be. Another of those magical moments was Vanesa Goikoetxea’s aria as Adriano’s wife, a song by a woman they do not love, forgotten by Adriano’s new love, the young Antinous. The aria seemed, at times, like a superb 1950s blues song with elegant pop edges. The audience spontaneously applauded the singer at this time.
“Doing an opera about Hadrian was the first idea I had when I thought of doing one, when I was reading Margerite Yourcenar’s book, which influenced me deeply,” Wainwright said at a press conference prior to the premiere. But the opera has nothing to do, not even remotely, with the book that the Belgian wrote in the fifties of the last century, it does not delve into the kaleidoscopic and profound figure that it portrays of the Roman emperor and his time. In Hadrian, the love story between the emperor and the young Antinous prevails. Wainwright wanted to tell a great homosexual love story and he doesn’t care about the historical consistency of the character or the time. “One of the things that I love about opera is that there is a fantastic tradition of basing yourself on historical figures and then being able to build the story that you really want and that serves you as a creator,” he explained, in that sense.
Mappelthorpe and the countercultural drift
The opera, divided into four acts, reinvents a story about which, on the other hand, we know little. Hadrian decided to make him a deity after his death, drowned in the Nile, an act that has traditionally been attributed to a sacrifice by the young man in order to save the emperor from a bad omen of death. Wainwright instead weaves a love story delivered under palace intrigue in which Antinous is assassinated by his army commander, Turbo. The reason is that Antinous, who has great influence over the emperor, defends peace with Judea and that can weigh down the military ambitions of the military.
The opera, therefore, chooses a main plot, which is the love story between the emperor and the young Greek. And a secondary one, the end of an empire threatened by Jewish monotheism and, as they say on stage, Nazarene. Although the Roman Empire would convert to Christianity two hundred years later with Constantine I, and the real enemy in the following century would be the barbarians who were not at all monotheistic, Wainwright’s interest seems to want to bring that era closer to ours in order to contrast the universe loving gay, free and plural, with our world, “a world that is becoming more conservative and terrible every day”, as the artist affirmed before the media.
There the hodgepodge becomes Manichaean. State is spoken of, images of the American flag are superimposed when war is called on stage, or when at the end of the opera “one God alone” is sung in chorus (the Roman world fights against monotheistic religions) and it is superimposed the immense image of the American dollar bill in which, on the figure of George Washington, the phrase “in God we trust” says. And even a veiled accusation is made comparing the Roman Empire’s war with Judea to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ideological cocoa is certainly capital and the viewer no longer knows if the opera defends Gustave Flaubert’s phrase “when the gods no longer existed and Christ had not yet appeared, there was a unique moment, from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius, in which he was only the man”, or else we are in a countercultural act against the warlike and imperialist American policy.
Mapplethorpe’s Powerful Charge
But beyond ideological inconsistencies, the work has, apart from the good musical moments, a montage and a format that, although not perfect, do give play and flight to the proposal. The main one is the inclusion of the universe of Mapplethorpe’s photographs. Removing certain moments that are too illustrative —the text talks about a dog, the image of a dog appears, the scene takes place on the Nile and some images of boats are projected— and other blushing ones —such as the inclusion of Schwarzenegger or Richard Gere as the new Adonis of the reigning empire—, little by little the powerful universe of the American photographer reigns on the scene. The classic nature of his photographs, both compositionally and in terms of lighting, match the proposal. The metaphorical and carnal power of the images of human bodies and flowers prevail. When the third act arrives in which Hadrian and Antinous lie, the selection of images rises in carnality and gay aesthetics to the highest degree. And throughout the show, when talking about these two figures of classical Rome, we can see contemporary photographs where thousands of ways of living homosexuality are represented, from bikers, fetishists, hustlers, threesomes with women… All that universe makes the devoted love of these two Romans is not distanced in time and a common thread is drawn between the two eras, a thread woven with a conception of free and elevated love.
The semi-cut format, with the singers sober facing the audience, allowing themselves only brief dramatic brushstrokes, allowed the viewer to let go through Mapplethorpe’s images, music and their own imagination. Only certain imbalances weighed down the evening. In the first, each act was presented by a projected text in English, without being translated on the screens. In addition, the texts passed by so quickly that not even a seasoned student of Eaton’s could have had time to read them. This coupled with a horrible translation that came to translate the word mind (mind) by heart in the most important aria of the work make one suspect that the work has not been what was required. The opera will arrive on the 29th of this month at the Peralada Festival.