HPAF Turns Hell into Heaven
Hawaii Performing Arts Festival (HPAF) fans are thrilled that fully staged opera is once more part of paradise. At the Kahilu, temperatures are taken, and masks are worn, but the bar is open, seats are filled, and generous patrons (for this opera, Michael Thompson and Marilyn and Carl Bernhardt) have again stepped up to give the Big Island community what it so craves: sets, singers, an orchestra in the pit and a full show to come.
HPAF’s orchestra, conducted by Paul Floyd, is a delight to the ear. These musicians are all seasoned professionals. Orpheus begins with a lovely, textured musical prologue that sets the scene and titillates anticipation. Offenbach’s score is a delight, and when the famous can-can section breaks out, everyone’s toes twitch, longing to kick up to the grin-creating themes. This production features an English translation with some wickedly funny jabs at the state of the current world. Offenbach would be pleased since social satire has been an integral part of this work since its inception. Super titles in English of the English libretto ensure that no joke is missed.
As the curtain rises, we see the simple set of large blocks that facilitate jumping, swooning, and generally dancing about. An enormous scrim fills the back of the stage to show us Earth, Mount Olympus, and ultimately Hell.
Public Opinion (Anneke Van Slyke), an officious matron with a giant bullhorn, warns us of the questionable nature of what we are about to see. She is later to be accompanied by her chorus, which she explains most emphatically is a modern version of the ancient Greek chorus that comments on all things moral, and of course, immoral. With her marvelous bel canto voice, Eurydice (Lilith Spivack) saunters onto the stage and lets us know that this show is all about adultery, and just in case that word is too difficult for us, she clarifies: Sex. She wanders about plucking fanciful oversized flowers constructed of swimming noodles and foam. In later scenes, most of the props are inflated beach toys of one sort or another. This is, after all, a production in Hawaii. Orpheus (Dylan Godbey) enters, reveals himself as a fatuous buffoon, and we are off on the comic ride.
Poor Eurydice is bored to tears by Orpheus and his silly violin playing. She moans, pleads, throws herself on the ground, and then stuffs swim noodles (flower stems, that is) in her ears in a fruitless attempt to spare herself agony. What she really wants is a rendezvous with her lover, Pluto (Ben Johnson). When he swaggers onto the stage, we know this devil is up to no good. A blow-up beach float in the shape of a snake bites our poor Eurydice, and she’s dead—off to the Underworld. Pluto has a beautiful, strong, compelling voice, and we all love an attractive villain. We are swept up to Mount Olympus, where we find the gods are just as miserable as poor Eurydice. They are sick of perfection, nectar, and ambrosia and long to be human, as it turns out, even if that means in Hell.
Venus (Jennifer O’Brien) is sultry, in red, lame, and bored despite having all humankind (of the male variety) at her beck and call. Diana (Emily Densmore), the Huntress, appears draped in silver fox, heads still attached, and is equally miserable. Her gorgeous, powerful voice tells us so. Cupid (Shuyi Li) nearly steals the show, prancing and pirouetting with her rainbow tulle skirt and long black pigtails, looking decidedly like an animé character. Jupiter (David Drettwan) tries lightning flashes to get everyone back in line and fails. Finally, Orpheus is dragged to Olympus by Public Opinion to get his Eurydice back, although he is thrilled that she is gone. The Act One curtain number shows off the full chorus in fine form. The music and the singing are upbeat and lovely, even if the characters are all in the dumps.
Everyone ends up in Hell. They drink and debauch and are delighted. Pluto locks Eurydice away to try to keep her. Cupid transforms Jupiter into a fly so he can enter her prison through the keyhole. Much wonderful singing and comedy ensue.
As we approach the final curtain, the can-can is heard once more. Actors do rolling handstands across the stage, legs are kicked high and held in the air, a chorus line appears with high kicking ladies, and we even are treated to the splits. The full ensemble sings their hearts out, and we all wish we could go to Hell, too. It’s Heaven.
About the author: Lisa Chu-Thielbar studied literature and journalism at UC Berkeley, creative writing at Stanford University, and worked as a science, technical and educational writer at NASA Ames Research Center in northern California.
Photos: Steve Roby
Performance date: 16/07/2022
A full calendar of HPAF events and tickets for all events are available by visiting https://hawaiiperformingartsfestival.org/. Tickets for Kahilu Theatre events may be purchased at https://kahilutheatre.org/ or via phone at (808) 885-6868.