Great enthusiasm at Jenny McLeod’s “Hōhepa” premiere

JENNY McLEOD – HŌHEPA (opera) – World premiere performance

New Zealand International Festival of the Arts / NBR New Zealand Opera

Cast: Phillip Rhodes (Hōhepa) / Jonathan Lemalu (Te Kumete) / Deborah Wai Kapohe (Te Rai)

Jane Mason (Jenny Wollerman) / Nicky Spence (Thomas Mason) / Martin Snell (Governor George Grey)

Narrator (Te Tokotoko /Te Waha): Rawiri Paratene

Director: Sara Brodie

Members of the Vector Wellington Orchestra

Conductor: Marc Taddei

Wellington Opera House

Thursday, 15th March, 2012

I’m not sure whether I ought to admit to readers of this review that, earlier in the same day that I attended the opening of Jenny McLeod’s “Hōhepa” I took up a friend’s invitation to accompany him to a screening of the latest New York Metropolitean Opera production of “Götterdämmerung”.

Perhaps my abrupt juxapositioning of the two experiences was foolhardy, considering the chalk-and-cheese aspect of the works involved. But I found the inevitable comparisons thrown up by these “close encounters” thought-provoking, residues of which have undoubtedly coloured my reactions to Jenny McLeod’s work, outlined below.

The first thing that must be said of “Hōhepa” is that it’s a pretty stunning creative achievement on McLeod’s part, in line with Wagner’s achievement of writing his own texts for his stage works. And as with Wagner in his “Götterdämmerung” I felt an incredible emmeshment of words and music throughout the work, if at the opposite end of the grandly operatic textural and tonal spectrum.

Employing a moderately-sized cast and chorus with a small orchestra, McLeod created an evocative and enduring variety of ambiences throughout the story’s presentation, the sounds shaping and enlivening the narrative with firmly-focused contouring and colorings. In a sense I thought the orchestral score the most consistently dramatic protagonist, one from which nearly everything on the stage seemed to take its cue. One’s ear was constantly being drawn forwards and into that “world of light”, the sounds suggesting an order presided over by ancient gods and disrupted by unexpected change.

To briefly outline some background – Hōhepa Te Umuroa was a Whanganui Maori living in the Hutt Valley during the 1840s, one who, though well-disposed towards the European settlers he met and befriended, opposed the land-confiscation policies of Governor George Grey and took arms against the British militia. Captured, he and others, including his friend Te Kumete, were exiled to a penal colony in Tasmania, where Hōhepa died. His forgotten grave was rediscovered by a New Zealand child visiting Tasmania, whose parents alerted the authorities, and began a process that would see the remains of the exiled chief returned to New Zealand in 1988.

Through her involvement with writing church music for use by Maori people in the Ohakune district, Jenny McLeod had developed an association with Ngati Rangi. She was asked by Matthew Mareikura, elder, and leader of the mission which brought home Hohepa’s remains, if she would undertake to write the history of the entire saga – not as an opera, but hopefully in book form, a task she accepted. She was then approached by the current director of NBR New Zealand Opera, Alex Reedijk to write “a New Zealand work” for the stage, and she thus decided that it would be appropriate to adapt Hohepa’s story for the purpose.

In the course of her compositional career, McLeod has, in a sense, covered more territory than most, her works ranging from avant-garde innovation and her own brand of neo-primitivism, through popular styles, including hymn-writing for present-day worship, to a re-thinking of an avant-garde “tone-clock theory” involving innovative use of the chromatic scale, something she found influenced her writing of “Hōhepa”. She’s refreshingly pragmatic about her use of such techniques in as much as they have an impact on what the ordinary concert- or opera-goer hears in her music – in a recent “Listener” interview she talked about listeners not needing to know too much about the technicalities, expressing confidence that people would instinctively sense a “structural coherence” in her work.

I wondered, as I listened to the evening’s finely-wrought tapestry of sounds, whether this “structural coherence” of McLeod’s would generate sufficient energy of itself to implant a stage work with requisite dramatic possibilities. What I felt must have posed an enormous challenge for director Sara Brodie was how to respond to McLeod’s writing – how to render it onstage as “dramatic” or “theatrical” in an operatic sense. The presentation involved a great deal of “storytelling” via a narrator, one self-styled as a “talking stick” – Te Tokotoko, who is also the hero’s spirit guardian. Actor Rawiri Paratene looked and sounded the role to perfection, though I wondered whether his prominence throughout actually diminished the impact made on the proceedings by Hōhepa himself, whose dramatic character could have “taken on” more of his own story and enhanced the depth of his onstage presence in doing so.

In an article in the programme, Diana Balham writes of Hōhepa that he “is really an ideal opera leading man” – an ordinary man caught up in events which lead to his wrongful exile, imprisonment and eventual death, his fate leavened by a kind of post-mortem coda of wrongs addressed and put to rights. On the face of things that’s perfectly true – but the writer’s words created an expectation that, as a character Hōhepa would behave more “operatically”, which didn’t seem to be the composer’s (and following on, perhaps not the director’s) intention.

McLeod’s work itself seemed to me stylistically more like a kind of “dramatic legend” – something of the ilk of Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust”, a work which is equally successful in concert as when staged. There were occasional moments during Hōhepa of physical energy and dramatic movement (a brutal killing was depicted at one point), but in general the stage movement and configuration had a gradually unfolding aspect suggesting pageantry or ritual more than theatrical cut-and-thrust.

This impression was heightened by the composer’s use of some of the drama’s supporting characters, as well as the chorus, to advance the narrative – while the effect wasn’t unlike stylized classical drama, I felt the balance between storytelling and theatrical depiction was pushed away from the latter to the point of dramatic dilution. Ironically, I also thought that Hōhepa himself wasn’t given sufficient prominence throughout the first two acts to capture our attention, to train our focus upon him with sufficient force so that his fate as the tragic embodiment of a victim of gross injustice would later have its full dramatic impact.

Phillip Rhodes, who played Hōhepa, did everything he could with the part – he looked and sounded splendid throughout, and had both powerful and touching moments, the most enduring of which for me over the first two acts were the imposing warrior’s delight in his Christianity-inspired “Holy Family”, and his teaching of the names of birds to his children. But the Pakeha settler couple, Jane and Thomas Mason, made even more of a lasting impression on me, dramatically (splendid singing from both Jenny Wollerman and Nicky Spence), while Deborah Wai Kapohe’s Te Rai (Hōhepa’s wife) and Jonathan Lemalu’s Te Kumete (Hōhepa’s friend), both richly-characterised roles, seemed just as prominent in the scheme of things as the eponymous hero.

And yet – perhaps one shouldn’t be making such an issue of this. After all, in Maoridom it is the whanau, hapu, iwi, and the associated whakapapa which matters more than the individual; and Hōhepa’s tragedy was essentially a communal one, given that he endured great personal privation of both a physical and spiritual kind up until his death in exile in Tasmania. In that sense it’s appropriate that the character be portrayed as an integral member of a group as much as an individual, particularly as the Western operatic concept of a “hero” doesn’t sit well with the scenario that McLeod evokes. Should the work, then, be actually called “Hōhepa”? Is it more about a darker aspect of this country’s history than about what actually happened to him? Is it even more universal than that?

At the time, in the opera house, I felt myself musically entranced by it all, despite some bemusement – upon reflection, and having read back through what I’ve already said in this review, I feel myself beginning to incline towards taking the things I saw and heard on their own terms, and greatly enjoying them. Above all was, as I’ve said, the beauty and variation of McLeod’s illuminated tapestry of instrumental sounds, rendered with the utmost skill by a chamber-sized group of players drawn from the Vector Wellington Orchestra, here under the guidance of conductor Marc Taddei.

Then there were the voices, at the beginning of the work as people of the land enacting the rituals of acknowledging the tipuna, and paying homage to their living descendants. These choruses then merged with the drama, as Hōhepa’s descendants witnessing the recovery and repatriation of his bones, and afterwards as his contemporaries, expressing in heartfelt tones the shared ignominious humiliation of displacement, and the sorrow of his loss to exile and death.

Each of the solo voices suggested oceans more capacity for characterization than was allowed by the composer – apart from those I’ve mentioned, Martin Snell as Governor George Grey quickly established the character’s arrogance and implaccable nature, again largely with audience-directed pronouncements, though in places with engagingly jaunty (and ironic) Stravinsky-like accompaniments.

Given that McLeod’s treatment of the subject-matter demanded a good deal of recitative-like storytelling on the part of the characters, director Sara Brodie wisely responded with stagings designed by Tony de Goldi that emphasized and underpinned the ritual-like aspect of the drama. Her “less-is-more” instincts gave our imaginations space to augment the physical movements of the characters with impulses of our own, suggested either by music, words or backdrop images, sensitively applied here by Louise Potiki Bryant.

Opera is meant to be a visual as well as an aural experience – while this unconventional work of McLeod’s seemed to me to work just as effectively as abstract music and storytelling as it did as a theatrical event, the production’s feeling for ritual and atmosphere grew beautifully from the sounds made by voices and instruments. An enthusiastic and heartwarming reception was accorded the composer, along with her singers and musicians and her creative team, by an enthralled audience at the final curtain. I thought it richly deserved.





















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