The Washington National Opera has always been a champion for young artists, both on stage and off. The WNO’s American Opera Initiative’s premier production of Better Gods
is a testimony to that. Composed with ethnical truth by Luna Pearl Woolf, Better Gods
is a stirring portrait of a determined Queen who must decide whether she should give up her crown or her soul.Based on the true story of the annexation of Hawaii in 1898, and Queen Lili`uokalani’s struggle to keep her nation together. The story, as told with brutal honest through Caitlin Vincent’s stirring libretto, is a bold choice to be told at the Kennedy Center. A dark moment in our nation’s history, the fact that this story can be told at the nation’s premier art centers is a testament to the work of both the WNO and the Kennedy Center.Ms. Woolf’s gorgeous score is underlined by the use of traditional Hawaiian chants and her score utilized authentic instruments like the nose flute, Kala’au (percussive sticks), and Ili’ili (castanets), that are native to the island. Ms. Woolf’s score also uses Queen Lili`uokalani’s famous composition, “Aloha ‘Oe”, sung in gorgeous counterpoint by soprano Ariana Wehr.
Ms. Wehr, as islander Kahua, has a beautiful timber to her voice that soars above the gorgeous orchestrations. In addition, Ms. Wehr plays a variety of instruments on stage, including the nose flute. As the Queen, Mezzo-Soprano Daryl Freedman commands royalty and presence on the stage in both her voice and prowess. Her mighty range soars from a delicate upper register to a deep and soulful low sound.
As the force behind the annexation, tenor Rexford Tester has an appropriate darkness to his voice that shows his range as a musician and his attention to the nuances of the score. The remainder of the six member cast is solid, and particularly the sextet harmonizes miraculously together on the climax of “This Day”.
Since Francesca Zambello took over as artistic director of the WNO in 2011, she has made bold choices to tell stirring stories and Better Gods is a one that is worth telling.
Better Gods plays through January 9, 2016 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Visit the Kennedy Center for tickets and the remainder of their season.