More new opera commissions should be for hour-long pieces.
Opera is seen as such a big art form that artists faced with creating one can stumble on their own visions of grandeur. A shorter format helps keep expectations in check. It certainly helped “Better Gods,” the opera by Luna Pearl Woolf and Caitlin Vincent that had its world premiere as part of the Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative on Friday night.
“Better Gods” has a ways to go to succeed as an opera. But it has big aims, and the shorter format helped mitigate, to some degree, what appeared to be the creators’ inclinations to make big, sweeping statements that can grow dramatically turgid.
It certainly has a significant historical basis. “Better Gods” is the story of Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii, who was overthrown in 1893 by a group of rich American businessmen who were worried that her desire for a new constitution beefing up the rights of her subjects could threaten their own territorial interests. Liliuokalani was an intelligent and urbane woman who was also a composer — her well-known “Aloha ’Oe” was featured in Woolf’s score — and the opera conveys her stature and her plight.
The mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman — like the rest of the cast, a member of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program — rose admirably to the challenge of giving a big sing of a big character, in an role that requires her to be rather saintly and not entirely human for much of the evening. Her voice has a slightly metallic edge and lacks real firmness on the bottom, but she sang a lot without a hint of tiredness. She also transformed herself from the characters she portrayed in WNO’s 20-minute operas a few weeks ago into a convincing personification of the queen (whose photograph was featured in the promotional materials for the show).
Hunter Enoch showed a firm, pleasant baritone as the journalist James Miller, who is forced to confront the untruths he has published from the American perspective, though not to emend them, and Rexford Tester was the oily businessman Thurston, leader of the coup against the queen. Wei Wu, by now a WNO stalwart, was the leader of the Hawaiian resistance. Ariana Wehr sang with a clear, beautiful soprano as the maid Kahua, who sings some traditional Hawaiian songs and attempts to render them in English, an incarnation of the cultural standoff that the opera seeks to depict.
Woolf tried, laudably, to incorporate this standoff in the score, having Liliuokalani move from melodic Western operatic statements to exegesis influenced by traditional Hawaiian music. She effectively incorporated traditional Hawaiian instruments, placing the percussionist Greg Akagi onstage, in costume, ruffling his hands through shells and striking various wooden instruments, adding emphasis and color and character to the score, and visually dominating Daniel Conway’s simple set.
“Better Gods” suffers from its good intentions. In trying to anchor the significance of its action in local color, creation mythology, and the plight of a strong but powerless woman in a Western, male-dominated society, it leans too heavily on big repetitive musical and verbal statements, when in fact some of its strongest moments are throwaway lines that let us see the queen as a human being, trying to deal with the men who surround her. The work is a valiant but flawed attempt at something quite significant — and would probably be more effective if it were even shorter.