Written in Tahitian language, the libretto draws on indigenous legend La légende de Aro Arii te Tara, reported by the last queen of Tahiti, Marau Taaroa. The legend was successively published in the French weekly journal L’Illustration in 1927 and in the Bulletin de la Société des Etudes Océaniennes in 1983. It relates the dramatic story of a local chief, overwhelmed by jealousy and revenge feelings, and of his beautiful daughter. The libretto includes symbolic characters and supernatural spirits of Polynesia.
Born in 1860 from Alexander Salmon, an English merchant, and princess Oehau, adopted daughter of king Pōmare II’s widow, Marau Taaroa somehow foreshadows today’s globalized world. Educated in Sydney in the late nineteenth century, she left Australia in 1874 to marry heir prince Ariiaue, and dedicated her life to disseminate Polynesian culture to new western audiences.
While king Ata participates in an ongoing party in Opoa, his messengers bring him ʻUi, tied up. Ata does not notice him right away and sings her love for beautiful women, good food and ʻava, the traditional beverage of the Pacific. At the end of the festivities, Ata finally notices ʻUi who complains and worries about his daughter, and questions him. Intrigued, he asks for this young woman. His warriors go and find her and Ata, dazzled by Aro’s beauty, promises to satisfy all her desires. In exchange for freedom for her father, she dances for Ata. The couple falls in love and Ata eventually accedes to Aro’s wish. Released but humiliated, ʻUi decides to take revenge, while Aro tries to convince her mother of the sincerity of her love for Ata.
Returning to Faʻaoe, ʻUi ruminates his revenge and plans to kill Ata by fire, despite Tahuʻa’s warnings. The volcano wakes up from a long sleep and reveals the goddess of fire. While she warns of the extent of her power and tells that she can destroy everything except love, ʻUi argues on the need for revenge, persuaded that it will give him the respect of his people and the love of his wife. Motire, frightened by the appearance of the goddess, sees in her the sign of a great misfortune and tries in vain, with the help of Tahuʻa, to dissuade her husband. Mad with rage, ʻUi invokes the goddess. Aro, ignorant of her father’s plans, nostalgically talks with his mother about the times of childhood. Motire tries to protect her daughter by inviting her to stay with her. Then, ʻUi has a wide net placed around Ata’s hut before invoking the Fire of the Goddess, despite the entreaties of Aro who has just discovered the trap. But the goddess announces that Ata will not die but instead that she will take ʻUi. He then throws himself into the flames to kill Ata while the latter leaves the hut, unscathed, for the happiness of Aro.