Washington National Opera’s Better Gods brings a mostly unknown chapter in Hawaiian history onto the stage at the Kennedy Center, telling the story of Queen Lili’uokalani, the island nation’s last monarch, with dignity and high artistic values. I imagine the Hawaiian “better gods” are happy.
With this work, Washington National Opera proves conclusively that finding new stories about the American experience and presenting them with the highest caliber of young singers is a core mission of the company. This may be its most enduring legacy.
Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and right-hand man Michael Heaston, who directs both the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and the American Opera Initiative, chose composer Luna Pearl Woolf and librettist Caitlin Vincent for WNO’s fourth hour-long operatic commission in its American Opera Initiative. They’ve delivered a very respectable iteration as a world premiere; the work, compressing seven years into one hour, primarily wants to be lengthened and filled out more.
This season seems to be WNO’s “tell it on the mountain” history series. Sharing parts of not-so-pretty aspects of our common history is something the company has stepped up to fearlessly, and it’s another important aspect of why WNO is beginning to look like our “national opera company.” Just recently the company produced Appomattox. Coming up February 16-20 is Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, based on Alan Paton’s seminal book, Cry the Beloved Country, about apartheid in his homeland of South Africa. It surely will resonate both here and now as a tale of a father’s heartbreak at the injustice meted out all too often to our young Black sons.
Better Gods is the story of the annexation of Hawaii and the resistance against political usurpation and cultural hegemony by Queen Lili’uokalani and her followers. The Queen herself was a composer and translator of some of Hawaii’s most beloved traditional music, and the creative team shows great originality of an operatic vision when these themes and melodies come forth. The Queen’s Prayer is particularly haunting.
The inclusion of native instruments, (particularly the nose flute and various percussion sounds) is a great addition. They served the work visually when played on the stage and added greatly to the rich textures of the piece. Timothy Myers conducted the orchestra and did a terrific job of creating an original sound with the combination of the classical orchestral ensemble blended with the specific Hawaiian instruments and colors. With the WNO musicians, Myers was able to communicate the intention of the composer Woolf’s world and cyclical structure of librettist’s Vincent’s writing by creating a dramatic soundscape at the beginning and end that represented the ocean tides lapping all around the action.
I believe it was the WNO orchestra’s percussionist, Greg Akagi, although unnamed in program as such, who should be given special kudos for stepping onto the stage and bringing with him the most interesting assortment of the additional instruments. When he and bass singer Wei Wu doubled up to “drum” on the bamboo cage built around them, it added both aurally and the visually to convey something about a fierce muster of warriors to the cause.
As the Queen, Daryl Freedman, brings to the role not only a magnificent and formidable presence but an extraordinary mezzo soprano sound due to tones at the bottom of her range that are beautifully show off Woolf’s music. She has to carry the show at an intensity that never waivers. Whether her deep, dark sound is particularly Hawaiian, I am not at all sure, but the range not only spoke of her character’s authority but suggested a spiritual connection with gods of land and sea.
Ariana Wehr, as her companion Kahua, also provided a most interesting texturizing of her own shimmering soprano. Their duet was quite beautiful, and I only wished there was more of this kind of opportunity for the singers.
While the male singers in the opera were in fine voice, I felt that their parts had not yet been set with enough difference in tone and feeling. Hunter Enoch as James Miller came the closest to being a sympathetic character with a dramatic arc of his own. Miller’s interest in Hawaiian independence seemed in part to do with his growing interest in Kahua, but this was not developed. Wei Wu as an islander, who may or may not have planned to stir up an insurrection, including burying a stash of weapons, is such a terrific and intelligent singer. His role in this opera deserves more pay off, and the development of that character would augment the perspective of the Hawaii’s loyalists.
The other roles seem to suggest varying degrees of villainy. Rexford Tester is a most accomplished tenor. His character Lorrin Thurston, based on a real figure, is a complex, multi-faceted being who manipulated a businessman’s deal to sell off Hawaii to American mercantile advantage. He is a marvelously strong man and could offer many possibilities for future iterations. As yet, there are not enough moments to simply relish both a tenor’s ability to carry us away with pure sound and be privy to a villain’s innermost thoughts.
The challenge in so much contemporary opera is how to balance the forward movement of the action and, as in this case, serve the historic story, with instances where the audience can “linger” in the moment, washed over by the “blossoming” of an aria.
As it stands, Better Gods has been written as if with the equivalent of key bullet points, forcing the whole cast to keep up the intensity of those “bullets” throughout. Consequently, individual voices start to merge, even lacking emotional variety at times. Timothy Bruno’s Judge feels as if he’s on full throttle, and here is an artist and a role that could offer considerable nuance to the central dramatic argument.
Despite all this, director Ethan McSweeny got it just right for the work and where it is – he directed it as an oratorio. McSweeny has staged everyone often stretched in a wide line across the stage with the singers facing out. There is almost no interaction, and although the Queen is left alone on stage at the end, the last scene did not evoke intimacy for me but more of a feeling of a posed icon.
As an oratorio, Better Gods is carried forward by its music and by bringing to our attention the dramatic high points and relevant historic facts. It is not, as yet, an opera whose story is motivated through relational high and low moments.
No doubt, there was time and budget for only minimum design and staging choices, but McSweeny makes the most of it while letting the work speak for itself. Set designer Daniel Conway and costume designer Lynly A. Saunders had created just enough suggestion of style and period to be lit beautifully by A.J. Guban.
Finally, there is something compelling about the work and its creators, and yes, we wish them aloha! and the opportunity to remount this again, maybe (especially) in Hawaii.
Better Gods was performed January 8 and 9 in the Terrace Theater at The Kennedy Center.
Composed by Luna Pearl Woolf . Libretto by Caitlin Vincent . Directed for the Stage by Ethan McSweeny . Featuring Daryl Freedman as Queen Lili’uokalani, Rexford Tester as Lorrin Thurston,
Hunter Enoch as James Miller, Timothy Bruno as Judge Albert Judd , Robert Wilcox as Wei Wu, and Ariana Wehr as Kahua . Produced by Washington National Opera . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.