Every now and then a reviewer witnesses a production which is so thrillingly theatrical, intoxicatingly on target and well thought out that it almost makes the rest of the season's drek seem worthwhile. Such evenings usually have nothing to do with established superstars. Nor do they involve the greatest singing ever heard. Instead, they identify, capture and communicate to the audience -- in clear and concise musicodramatic terms -- a unique and exciting idea. And in case there was ever any doubt, an interesting theatrical concept that has been well thought out and cleverly executed on the stage is what genuinely pushes my buttons.
Several months ago, I was fortunate enough to have one of those golden experiences in opera. I've held off writing about it because I wanted to savor the memory, roll the permutations around in my head and have a chance to relive the satisfaction of a truly unique operatic experience. The production I refer to did not take place in any of the world's great opera houses. Nor was it staged by the Houston Grand Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, Minnesota Opera or one of the handful of American opera companies noted for taking risks.
IT HAPPENED IN HAWAII
That's right, folks. It happened in Honolulu when Hawaii Opera Theater updated Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte to the Hawaiian monarchy period, placed the action on the lanai and in the garden of a Waikiki hotel (with Diamond Head visible in the background) and renamed the opera "Pela No Ho'i Na Wahine." With a scrim inspired by Madge Tennent's drawings of Hawaiian women and a production conceived by Terence Knapp, H.O.T. took Mozart's opera on a wild and wonderful catamaran ride during which Ferrando and Guglielmo became Frederich and William (two American naval officers stationed in Hawaii at the turn of the century) while Don Alfonso was transformed into Don Amalu, an elderly local cynic happy to take their money. Fiordiligi became Pualani, Dorabella was renamed Keanani and their maid, Despina, was reborn as Leilani -- a Maui girl who understood that "to catch mynah bird, you use guava!"
Terence Knapp's production wove numerous pieces of Hawaiian slang into the libretto so that "Addio" became "Aloha," "Ziti, Ziti," became "Wiki Wiki," and, at one point, Don Amalu told somebody to "Shoto make!" (Shut up). Drinks were served on the hotel's patio by a huge Samoan man dressed in a sarong and, before the men sailed off to war in an outrigger canoe, the girls dutifully draped floral leis around their necks.
Then the fun began. A "Greek chorus" of three lei-sellers in traditional costumes sat on the side of the stage interpreting the trio sung by Don Amalu and the two girls with hula gestures. Before you could say "King Kamehameha," the men returned disguised as two rakes from the Russian colony on Lahaina. When the two sisters tried to remain faithful to their boyfriends, Leilani chided them by asking "Are you two wahine? Or are you...coconuts?"
Called upon to fake the services of a doctor, the eternally streetwise Leilani (described by Don Amalu as "a real Titi") disguised herself as a Hawaiian kahuna carrying a lump of glowing lava which could counteract the poison ingested by the two men. At the wedding scene (for which the hotel's lanai was decorated with patio lanterns), Leilani reappeared in the guise of a Chinese lawyer from Yick Lum Plum (a corporation which makes a popular snack food in Hawaii).
Many stage directors have attempted to update operas like Cosi Fan Tutte to different periods as a means of making them more relevant to contemporary audiences. But Hawaii Opera Theatre's production of Pela No Ho'i Na Wahine offered a far more interesting artistic twist than Peter Sellars updating the action in Mozart's Don Giovanni so that it takes place on the streets of Spanish Harlem or Francesca Zambello relocating Beethoven's Fidelio to a Latin American banana republic under siege by a military dictator. By evoking the visual images and using a vocabulary which are still very dear to the hearts of native Hawaiians, Terence Knapp's production imbued Mozart's opera with such a strong sense of Hawaiiana that the production became a truly indigenous operatic experience. The audience contributed to the ambience, with many women wearing traditional muu-muus and floral leis at the opening night performance.
In his American debut as an opera conductor, Martin Fischer-Dieskau presided over the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra with a keen understanding of the score. Thanks to some added help from director Matt Farruggio, the cast delivered a delightful show at the two performances I attended in Honolulu's Neal Blaisdell Concert Hall. Tenor David Eisler and baritone Richard Byrne offered solid portrayals of the pompously macho young men while Juliana Gondek and Victoria Livengood portrayed Mozart's fickle sisters with a delicious sense of girlishness. Although I enjoyed William Fleck's tart portrayal of Don Amalu, I was particularly taken with Nancy Elledge's feisty Leilani. The owner of a small but appealing voice (which is probably better suited to musical comedy and operetta) this soprano is a delightful performer who can quickly have an audience eating out of her hand.
Special credit goes to Joseph Dodd for his attractive unit set, to Sandra Finney for her delightful costumes, and to the trio of lei-makers (Luanna Farden McKenny, Aima Aluli McManus and Mihana Aluli Souza) for their unique contribution to this production.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 17, 1990.