Concert review: Hohepa, Wellington Opera House

By William Dart

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Rawiri Paratene who plays Te Tokotoko/Te Waha and Ngarino Watt in 'Hohepa' at the Opera House in Wellington. Photo / Marty Melville
Rawiri Paratene who plays Te Tokotoko/Te Waha and Ngarino Watt in 'Hohepa' at the Opera House in Wellington. Photo / Marty Melville

Jenny McLeod's Hohepa, premiered at the 2012 International Arts Festival, was an act of faith for all concerned.

This operatic revisiting of colonial injustices entailed years of research for its composer.

For McLeod, Hohepa was a "sacred trust", connecting to her 1968 Earth and Sky, a work prescient in its vigorous biculturalism.

Hohepa also marked NBR New Zealand Opera's long-awaited commitment to local opera.

Yet, for all the care and consideration of Sara Brodie's production, not to mention exemplary singing, one came away reeling from a welter of words; with the Maori text causing one to be constantly swivelling the head for surtitles on the side of the stage.

From the first te reo chorus, one felt an imbalance between chant and chamber orchestra.

Marc Taddei's well-primed band of 12 musicians needed beefing up so that McLeod's lush harmonies could counterbalance the thrust of the voices.

Too often, one longed for more expansive writing.

Nicky Spence and Jenny Wollerman were given sufficient pages to introduce themselves as the main Pakeha couple, but perhaps Martin Snell could have had more bars to relish his villainous Governor Grey.

Later in the piece, Deborah Wai Kapohe's immensely moving lament deserved expanding to capitalise on a charismatic singer and a special theatrical moment.

Jonathan Lemalu, impressively supportive as Hohepa's companion Te Kumete, made the most of a florid appreciation of a sweet rice pudding - one of McLeod's many touches of impish humour.

Phillip Rhodes illuminated the title role, whether tossing off two children's songs or engaging in a laconic confrontation with Robert Tucker's snooty portrait painter.

Again, one was left wanting more. Puccini would never have allowed Hohepa's death, a key scene in the opera, to pass with so little music.

McLeod's fanciful sense of humour came out in Rawiri Paratene's Te Tokotoko. While the actor's running commentaries aided the narrative, why did ironic oratory suddenly morph into tongue-in-cheek rap and eventually sometimes tentative song?

Will Hohepa have a life beyond this production? I suspect not but it would be cheering to think that this production might have been caught on film, as happened with the Festival's 1992 production of Christopher Blake's Bitter Calm.

What: Hohepa
Where: Wellington Opera House
When: Saturday

- NZ Herald

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