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American Opera Initiative: Snoozy 'Better Gods'

Rexford Tester (Lorrin Thurston), Timothy J. Bruno (Judge Albert Judd), Daryl Freedman (Queen Liliʻuokalani), Ariana Wehr (Kahua), and Hunter Enoch (James Miller) in Better Gods (photo by Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera)

Many Americans likely do not know the ugly details of how Hawaii became our 50th state. Part of the world's shameful history of colonialism, the annexation began with the forced abdication of the islands' last monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani, the ancestor of the family in Alexander Payne's film The Descendants. This is the subject of Better Gods, the latest new opera presented by Washington National Opera's American Opera Initiative, which has been guiding new works by developing American composers to the stage since 2012, an hour-long work by composer Luna Pearl Woolf and librettist Caitlin Vincent. This is the first contribution to the program by Woolf, who is married to cellist Matt Haimovitz, while Vincent wrote the libretto to Joshua Bornfield's Uncle Alex in 2013, sadly not reviewed by Ionarts.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Deposed queen leads valiant but flawed ‘Better Gods’ at WNO (Washington Post, January 11)

Alex Baker, Throne away (Parterre, January 11)

Jeanette Kelly, Montreal composer Luna Pearl Woolf writes first opera, Better Gods (CBC, January 7)

Steven Mark, Washington opera brings Liliuokalani’s story to stage (Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

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The musical contributions were excellent, led by conductor Timothy Myers, who has impressed us over the years at the Castleton Festival and Wolf Trap Opera. Impressive mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman was dignified and regal as Queen Lili'uokalani, with the sneering Lorrin Thurston of tenor Rexford Tester, who leads the coup against the queen, as a foil. Baritone Hunter Enoch was strong as a journalist who covers the events in Hawaii, although his role seemed largely superfluous to the story. Fine supporting performances came from bass Timothy J. Bruno (the judge who decides the queen's fate), bass Wei Wu (the royalist general who leads a rebellion in support of the queen), and soprano Ariana Wehr (the queen's ward).

Even with so much going for it, the opera was a disappointment. Vincent's libretto had its ponderous moments, saying a lot of things more than once that could have been left unsaid. Woolf's score had some appeal, tarted up with the sounds of traditional Hawaiian flutes and percussion, the latter played by Greg Akagi, one of the orchestra's percussionists, on stage. Queen Lili'uokalani was also a musician and composer, known for the song Aloha 'Oe, among many others, and Woolf weaves her melodies in with her own, as well as an ill-advised use of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Ethan McSweeny's production was functional if somewhat plain (sets by Daniel Conway, costumes by Lynly A. Saunders), with a static quality that drew attention to the static qualities of the opera.

This performance will be repeated this evening, in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

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