HADRIAN by RUFUS WAINWRIGHT (composer) and DANIEL MACIVOR (librettist) at the CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY with PETER HINTON director and JOHANNES DEBUS conductor (Oct 13-27, 2018)

Whether you're a Rufus fan or you simply love good music, then go to see Hadrian. The music is gorgeous and the story compelling. But Wainwright the composer is no Puccini/Lloyd-Webber wannabe. Nor is he the Rufus Wainwright we know from his pop persona.

Wainwright is not breaking any musical barriers here, except possibly his own. You won't hear him pushing the limits of twelve-tone music or trying to out-cage John Cage. You will catch traces of Benjamin Britten and the orchestral colours of Bela Bartok, with a moment or two of Richard Strauss, but the music is distinctive rather than derivative.

The story is a cross between Bellini's Norma, the Druidic priestess who sacrifices herself for war, and Orfeo's search for his lover Eurydice in the Underworld. Hadrian, a Roman general, is in mourning for his young lover, Antinous, while neglecting his country's political affairs. Two spectres, Plotina, who helped him gain the throne in real life, and Trajan, the former emperor whose throne he inherited, make a bargain: sign a decree declaring war against the Jews and Nazarenes in exchange for being allowed to relive two nights with Antinous.

Act one nicely sets up the crisis in the senate and the resulting bargain between Hadrian and the shades. There is virtually no humour in the opera, so Karita Mattila's coquetry as Plotina is a welcome relief when she arrives. Act two sets a glacial pace as Hadrian's wife, Sabina, declares her neglect by her husband. Meanwhile, we await Antinous's arrival, which takes a tad longer than it should. This is offset by the inventive set, however, whose changing visuals are powerful. (More of this would not be unwelcome without risking turning it into a video game.)

Act three begins with a stunning sex scene between Hadrian and Antinous, as beautiful and tasteful as anything seen on stage, while the instrumental music soars and swells. In fact, the entire act is perfection, as we see the love between the two men re-enacted and the trickery that results in Antinous's death.

The cast is well chosen, with notable performances by all the leads (Thomas Hampson as Hadrian, Isaiah Bell as Antinous, and whose mellifluous tones are memorable, and David Leigh as Turbo, the Judas figure who plots Antinous's death.) Particularly outstanding are the two women, Karita Mattila as Plotina and Ambur Braid as Sabina. It's also great to see tenor Ben Heppner back on stage again.

The fourth act gave me a bit of pause, especially after the perfect poise of the preceding act. The pace again was glacial and the music at its most romantic, almost too much so given the tone of the earlier parts. At times it felt as though we were approaching the dénouement of Tristan and Isolde, and the opera's length was clearly verging on Wagnerian proportions. I also took exception to the heavy-handed comment on Middle-Eastern politics at one point and the sticky, quasi-religiosity in the comparison of Antinous with Christ. A sacrifice does not always a saviour make.

That said, Hadrian is a highly welcome addition to the operatic repertoire and a considerable success for Wainwright, who never seems to stop exploring new worlds of sound. A hearty Bravo! to that.

Jeffrey Round is an award-winning author, filmmaker and song writer. His latest book is The God Game (Dundurn Press.)



There is a very contemporary tale of caution and fear on at Canadian Stage until October 21/18. (To be reprised at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal from Nov 6-25/18.)

Lucy Kirkwood's The Children unfolds quietly, revealing hints of a recent nuclear catastrophe that is barely spoken of and then only in reticent terms, like news that is so devastating adults talk of it quietly amongst themselves not to upset the children.

Hazel, a retired scientist, is entertaining Rose, a colleague she hasn't seen in thirty-eight years, and who just happened to drop by. Or perhaps not. They catch up on old news until it becomes clear Rose is on her way to the accident site to help with cleanup operations.

In the midst of their conversation, Hazel's husband, Robin, returns from feeding the cows, which as it turns out are outside the safe zone. For here, everything occurs either inside or outside the safe zone, though what is really and truly safe is not entirely clear, or possibly is only a matter of the characters' willingness to suspend their belief in the immediacy of the danger.

The writing is taut and confident, the drama's reveals are subtle and quietly alarming, allowing us to absorb its true depth in bits and pieces, as though we aren't capable of confronting it all at once. The set itself contributes to the unease, a dowdy country cottage set at off-angles to the audience and surrounded by an eerie green moat in an atmosphere of poison gas.

It's a delight to see three of Canada's most accomplished actors enjoying their roles. Johnson, Paton and Reid take the stage like a three-way tennis match, the ball bouncing from one to another at a mesmerizing pace. Lines come at breakneck speed throughout, but these actors can handle it and it gives the piece a propulsion that shows just how tightly written the work is overall.

Occasionally, one may want a bit of space between the lines in order to feel the weight of things revealed or hurled by one character at another. But here it's, "No emotion, please, we're British." However, as Canadians we'd like a little more breathing room, please and thanks, to digest, feel and situate ourselves inside the drama rather than remain outsiders looking in.

As pieces of the puzzle fall in place, we see both the contempt and love the characters have for one another, followed by the realization that there is far more here than meets the eye. For of course Rose has not just dropped by and, for a very real reason, has had both Hazel and Robin in her mind for some time. For that reason, she has come to pose a profound question. Not "What would you do for your country?", as was hammered into the heads of every British citizen over the course of two world wars, but something more immediate: "What would you give for an as yet unrealized future and the children who will grow up to inherit it?"

Both Rose and Robin find it relatively easy to make up their minds, while Hazel resists to the end. But beyond the fear and the caution, this is a play about personal responsibility and commitment. For ultimately, we all sit in Hazel's seat trying to decide.


CORIOLANUS at Stratford

There are three stars in Stratford’s current production of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Two of them are actors Lucy Peacock, as Coriolanus’s manipulative mother Volumnia, and Tom McCamus as his staunch friend Menenius, each of whom is delightfully at home in the prose. They make it both easy to understand and pleasurable to listen to, far too great a rarity in much Shakespearean acting, whose peculiar words and clunky phrasings can grate on our pop-culture-honed 21st-century ears if not handled well.

The third star, of course, is director Robert LePage’s set, with its mesmerising trompe-l’oeil staging. The chimerical, visually rich effects include a real car, a Roman bathhouse, a chic bar, a rainstorm, and texting soldiers, among other things, all of which are dazzling. Still, one wonders, as with the live elephant in Aida, just how much of it is really necessary and how much is there to make you forget that the play doesn’t quite live up to expectations.

Strange to think that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s later works, coming between such luminous plays as King Lear and The Tempest. It tells of the rise and fall of a Roman general, Coriolanus, whose pride is his downfall as he attempts to enter the world of politics. LePage is clearly making a statement about how media affects the current state of world politics. Yet, while there is plenty of hubris, most politicians today are far too canny about their PR to fall into Coriolanus’s trap of being a good person who’s just too dumb to figure out how to work things to his advantage.

I have long said that LePage was the 20th-century Shakespeare—and now the 21st-century Shakespeare—as much for his stunning reinvention of that writer’s works as for his staging of everything he does, including his own work. What he was creating a quarter century ago, others are just catching up with now. The (Ho-Hum) Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, winner of all those prestigious awards, owes more to LePage than any other stage director, living or dead. His constant urge to reinvent is often in line with the needs of the work, but occasionally shows them up, as in this case. What is needed here is not more inventive staging, but a stronger play and a more charismatic lead to make us like Coriolanus, despite his flaws.

While competent, Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus seldom rises above the merely perfunctory. It’s as though he had a mandate to fill—perhaps a gambling bill to be paid off post-haste—and so needed to pump out yet another work between masterpieces. We may never know, but it shows in the effort. Nevertheless, we have LePage and Peacock and McCamus, all of whom make this particular staging of it at Stratford more than worth the visit.

Jeffrey Round is the award-winning author of thirteen books, including the Dan Sharp mystery series. His most-recent book is the politically-themed thriller The God Game (Dundurn).

"WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?" The Politics of Division


PI Dan Sharp and author Jeffrey Round are thrilled to announce the publication of The God Game (Dundurn Books), fifth in the Dan Sharp mystery series.

Please Note: I am unable to update my site at this time. In the meantime ...

Hey, folks! Thought I would share some preview notices for THE GOD GAME (the fifth Dan Sharp mystery from Dundurn), coming in February 2018.

"I never thought Queen's Park could provide such a wonderfully dangerous playground for murder and mayhem, but Jeffrey Round has done it again and kept me up until the wee hours wondering if Dan Sharp will find his killer and survive his own personal mayhem."

SHEILA MCCARTHY, actor, writer, director

"Marriage, suicide and murder converge in this high-stakes mystery-thriller that has PI Dan Sharp questioning who to trust when a political scandal literally lands on his doorstep. A climactic ending I never saw coming!"

JON MICHAELSEN, Lambda-nominated author of Pretty Boy Dead

"A slick, intelligent mystery that allows time for characters and settings to breathe deeply. Round proves once again that he is a master of detail. His skilful narration and dialogue insist the reader be present, as Dan follows a tortuous trail of clues through Toronto neighbourhoods and beyond. Whether Dan is conversing with his son, fighting an attacker, or battling his personal demons, Round manages to infuse each page with deep humanity."

LIZ BUGG, author of the Calli Barnow series

SAVE THE DATE: Thursday March 15, 2018 -- 6:30 to 8:30

Dan Sharp will have his fifth book launch for THE GOD GAME as part of the International Festival of Authors' (IFOA) "Toronto Lit Up" series.

Where: Queen Books, 914 Queen Street East, with surprise readers and musical guests. Hope to see you there. Check Facebook for confirmation in the coming months.

Oh, yeah -- I'll be there too!

Jeffrey Round


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