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WNO’s ‘Better Gods’: New opera explores Hawaiian history

Written By | Jan 12, 2016

WASHINGTON, January 10, 2016 – The Washington National Opera (WNO) continued with its winter tradition of staging new short operas this past weekend (January 8-9) with the world premier performances of “Better Gods” at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.

Penned by the composer-librettist team of Luna Pearl Woolf and Caitlin Vincent, the new opera follows the final days in power of the Hawaiian Island’s last royal ruler, Queen Liliʻuokalani (sung by mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman), who was essentially deposed by a cadre of American robber barons, vintage 1893.

The whole story of the Queen and the coup is actually quite interesting and complex. But given the 1-hour format of WNO’s American Opera Initiative, which supported the creation of this new work, librettist Caitlin Vincent had to find some way to eliminate the layer of backstories and whittle the story line down to a minimum. This led to both positive and negative results for the final product.

The positive result: The opera boiled down to an often-interesting character study of the Queen herself, a fascinating and surprisingly complex Christianized and Westernized Polynesian island native. She doesn’t quite grasp the notion that the American businessmen running the sugar and pineapple plantations on the islands don’t regard her as much more than a run-of-the-mill primitive whose quaint notions regarding national pride and autonomy are viewed as a threat to their businesses’ profitability.

The negative result: Add in a little 21st century feminism and post-Colonialism, and you have an all-too-typical Hollywood- and New York-progressive plot device that oversimplifies the tangle of history, reducing it to a battle between the Noble Savage (Absolute Good) and the Ugly American Businessman (Absolute Evil).

This is unfortunate, as this solution effectively transforms the story into something resembling a carefully scripted WWE wrestling match. But then again, one has to do something to compact a tangled story like this into a single hour. Given the way the artistic world tilts these days, this was probably the most logical default position Ms. Vincent could take.

Musically speaking, Luna Pearl Woolf’s score took an interesting path, something of an operatic “world music” approach to the subject. Her score—crisply performed by a small subset of the WNO Orchestra under the baton of Timothy Myers—alternated fairly stock, post-modern music with traditional Hawaiian chants—including the familiar “Aloha ’Oe,” actually composed by the historical queen—backed up by some traditional Hawaiian instruments including a variety of percussion instruments and a curious but haunting “nose flute.” The traditional Hawaiian material proved a novel and interesting change of pace.

In addition, Ms. Woolf at times blended both the Hawaiian and contemporary motifs in a kind of cross-cultural musical synthesis. But like Huang Ruo’s blend of Chinese and American music and styles in his controversial 2014 opera, “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” (and to a lesser extent in his WNO-premiered short opera “An American Soldier,” also in 2014), the technique was not always seamless.

Less successful was Ms. Woolf’s intentionally satirical insertion of traditional, tonal American tunes like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” introduced to back up the more grandiose pronouncements of the opera’s villain, Lorrin Thurston (tenor Richard Tester). This proved a miscalculation that, while mildly amusing, had the effect of transforming the character of Thurston into a jingoistic, two-dimensional, cartoonish character like “Dudley Do-Right’s” Snidely Whiplash. Worse, it was a too-obvious case of a work of musical art wearing its politics too obviously on its sleeve.

Fortunately, the singing by the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists in this new production was quite good. Although the Lorrin Thurston sketched in this opera verges unintentionally on being almost comically evil, tenor Richard Tester decided to run with what he had. In so doing, he crafted a genuinely rousing bad guy in spite of it all while exhibiting considerable vocal and theatrical skill and presence.

In the role of Robert Wilcox, stalwart defender of the Queen and the islands’ nationalists, bass Wei Wu—whose talent we have appreciated on more than one occasion—excelled as Thurston’s opposite, a noble warrior prepared to sacrifice himself to defend his island nation’s independence.

Tenor Hunter Enoch excelled in what was perhaps this opera’s most complicated role, that of visiting journalist James Miller. Sent from his stateside newspaper to report on the Hawaiian coup, he’s easily sucked in by Thurston who, of course, gives him a snappy, one-sided, self-serving version of the story.

But to his credit, Miller seeks out the other side of the story and quickly discovers Hawaii’s “savage” Queen is, in fact, not at all what he expected. In voice and in manner, Mr. Enoch ably expressed the confusion and consternation that occurs when an accepted narrative is turned so obviously upside down. (There is perhaps a lesson in this for journalists today.)

First and foremost, however, the dominant role in “Greater Gods” is that of Queen Liliʻuokalani. Although this is only a one-hour opera, the role of the Queen is both central and huge, making considerable demands on the soloist. Daryl Freedman embraced the challenge, creating a character possessing great dignity and honor fully capable of expressing herself clearly and forcefully in each of her two worlds.

Ms. Freedman’s vocal skill is considerable, and her phrasing and diction in this often-challenging part were exemplary. Icing on the cake: in her regal manner and appearance—considerably enhanced by Lynly A. Saunders’ royal costuming—transformed her into a dead-ringer for the actual historical Queen, at least according to period photographs. It was quite an impressive performance.

Final vocal and musical hat tips go first to Ariana Wehr, whose lovely, light soprano voice gave quiet passion to her character, Kahua; to bass Timothy J. Bruno who gruffly portrayed the judge presiding over the kangaroo court proceedings that convicted the Queen of “treason;” and to percussionist Greg Akagi who expertly handled the various Hawaiian percussion instruments as he played them on stage, assisted at one point by Mr. Wu.

There is not a lot in the way of physical action in this almost oratorio-like short opera. But stage director Ethan McSweeny made the most of what he had available, especially ensuring that his characters were well-positioned toward the audience at the most crucial times. Set designer Daniel Conway also contributed to the setting and mood with surprisingly effective minimalist sets that conjured up the feeling of a royal palace without getting in the way of the cast.

Rating: * ½ (One and one-half out of four stars)

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17