Based on a true story spanning nearly 150 years, "Hohepa" lays bare some of New Zealand's most painful wounds _ and seeks to heal them through music.
The opera, given its world premiere Thursday as part of this year's New Zealand International Arts Festival, is the creation of composer Jenny McLeod, who wrote both music and text (part English, part Maori).
As performed in a simple and eloquent production by New Zealand Opera, "Hohepa" struck this listener as a flawed but frequently stirring work. There are moments of beauty and power, though ultimately what McLeod has written seems more history lesson than dramatic narrative, more pageant set to song than music-driven opera.
McLeod was born in New Zealand and studied in Europe with such composers as Messiaen, Boulez and Stockhausen. But she also has absorbed the poetry and song of the Maori community through years of close association.
Out of these and other influences, she has fused the musical idiom for her score, which unfolds mostly in chants and ensembles, punctuated by spoken narrative. A 12-piece orchestra, including strings, clarinet, piano and horn, creates an intimate texture filled with dissonant harmonies.
The story begins in 1841, when the Maori chief Hohepa finds his life in the Hutt Valley threatened by the arrival of English settlers. He and his people try to live in peace _ and might have succeeded had all the settlers been like Thomas Mason, a big-hearted Quaker, and his wife, Jane.
But conflicts over land soon lead to the arrival of a vicious governor, Sir George Grey, followed by armed soldiers with orders to run the Maori off their property.
Hohepa and his friend, Te Kumete, fight back but are captured and shipped off to a prison on the Australian island of Tasmania. There they have a chance reunion with Mason, who had fled New Zealand with his family to avoid the bloodshed.
With Mason's help, Hohepa is interviewed by a newspaper reporter and has his portrait painted by artist John Skinner Prout (the actual painting hangs today in the British Museum.) Mason manages to have the men moved to gentler surroundings, but Hohepa dies of tuberculosis and is buried far from home.
The opera is relatively short _ just over two hours including intermission _ but the second half loses momentum once Hohepa dies. Flash forward to 1988, and the discovery of his grave. After political jockeying (Australia agrees to return the bones as long as New Zealand foots the bill), Hohepa is reburied on the banks of the Whanganui River in his native land as his proud descendants look on.
At the very end, Hohepa reappears, standing next to Te Tokotoko, his beloved "Talking Stick," who (in the person of actor Rawiri Paratene) has narrated the story. It's a strong image, though one wishes McLeod had given Hohepa some final music to sing.
Her choice of an ending is curious but powerful in its own way _ instead of swelling to a climax, the music quietly trails off, almost as if in mid-measure.
One of the best things about the work is the way McLeod has injected humor into what might be an unrelievedly grim evening. This is particularly true of Hohepa himself, portrayed with dignity but also a sly sense of fun by the fresh-voiced baritone Phillip Rhodes, and of the food-obsessed Te Kumete, as brought to life by the imposing bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu.
Tenor Nicky Spence sang with bright ardor as Mason, and soprano Jenny Wollerman rose with pluck to some fearsome high notes as Jane. Soprano Deborah Wai Kapohe brought luscious tone to the role of Hohepa's wife, Te Rai, and bass Martin Snell was a chilling governor.
The production, directed by Sara Brodie, uses a set (by Tony De Goldi) consisting of two movable staircases with a screen in the back for video projections (by Louise Potiki Bryant). The choreography is by Taiaroa Royal.
Marc Taddei conducted the ensemble, drawn from members of the Wellington Orchestra. There are two more performances, March 17 and 18.
Despite the opera's upbeat conclusion, the story of Maori suffering is hardly at an end. A United Nations report last year noted the "extreme disadvantage in the social and economic conditions of Maori people in comparison to the rest of New Zealand society." The report also said that Maoris, who make up about 15 percent of the population, account for 51 percent of those in prison.