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A Flowering Tree

Los Angeles
Walt Disney Concert Hall
05/17/2009 -  
John Adams: A Flowering Tree
Eric Owens (Storyteller), Jessica Rivera (Kumudha), Russell Thomas (The Prince)
Rusini Sidi (Dancer/choreography), Eko Supriyanto (Dancer/choreography), Asrtri Kusuma Wardani (Dancer/choreography)
Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon (music director), Los Angeles Philharmonic, John Adams (conductor)
Peter Sellars (director), Gabriel Berry (Costume Design), James F. Ingalls (Lighting Design), Diane J. Malecki (Producer)

John Adams (© Margaretta Mitchell)

A Flowering Tree is a sleek and highly focused opera that springs lucidly from several traditions. John Adams and Peter Sellars offer opera a path toward the future, while taking full advantage of the musical and folkloric past. The work was commissioned for the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in 2006. Peter Sellars, the festival director asked Adams, a frequent collaborator, to create a response to Mozart’s late work. Adams took the Magic Flute as his inspiration. Adams and Sellars together adapted the libretto from texts by Attipat Krishaswami Ramanujan that retell ancient folktales. Three singers, a chorus and an orchestra play all the parts. The singers, the chorus and even the conductor were dressed in the rainbow hues and the pungently bright pastels and mirror work of Indian silks.

The piece presents a way for modern opera to move forward and yet remain timeless and apolitical, eschewing any particular trend or movement. The music abounds with sinuous melody, especially in the choral and orchestral writing, but every aspect of the work is also completely of our time, not even slightly archaic. It reaches back into folklore and out to a distant culture in a way that is both traditional and contemporary. Based on a 2000 year old South Indian folktale of the same title, the material is exotic in a similar way to Schumann’s oratorio Das Paradis und Die Peri. But like Schumann, Adams creates exoticism with his own voice; the musical idiom does not borrow from Indian music and is not at all eclectic. It is pure Adams, as Schumann was pure Schumann.

Three Indonesian dancers, who at times also represent characters in the story, shadow the three singers on stage. The dancers are a brilliant addition to the spectacle, creating movement and meaning, enhancing the theatrical intimacy. Peter Sellars direction betrays the influence of the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq, the renowned school of bodily expression, movement, gesture and mime. The dancers offer a kind of visual analog to the story and emotional tone, but in an intensely South East Asian manner that perfectly matches the folk tale. The dancers movements illustrate and translate the musical narrative, almost as if they were the hands of someone using sign language, writ large onto their entire bodies. Secondary characters beyond the three singers are represented at times by the chorus and also at times by the dancers. In one scene, one of the dancers wears a white mask, also in the tradition of Lecoq and theater of gesture and mime. But the dancers were equally effective when serving as shadow alter egos to the three main characters, expanding and embodying their emotional worlds.

The excellent orchestral writing was the best of programmatic music; Adam’s sound world in this opera would also be ideal for film or ballet. In a splendid contrast of aural color, the orchestra and chorus passed the melody and focus back and forth, woven gamelan-like but not really borrowing musically from the gamelan. Adams conducting was also superb, the orchestra sliding and shimmering at his touch. While the singers were ideally chosen for their roles, the soprano did strain at the top of her voice and volume. My friend Bob Klein who was with me, coined the term “wretched-tative” for the anti-melodic quality of much of Adam’s vocal writing (as epitomized in Nixon in China). But that particular stentorian quality was much less in evidence here.

The soloists performed in English, but the chorus sang in Spanish. Although largely unexplained, the contrast in articulation between the idioms was lovely. There were moments of exquisite sensual poetry throughout the opera, in both languages. The allegorical quality of the folkloric expression worked well in both English and Spanish. There were often tropes of fertility or images that were striking and subtly sexual, such as describing the beautiful young girl Kumudha as ‘wet soil ready for seed.” The Prince, watching his future bride through the jungle foliage is called a “descargado elephante,” bringing to mind a wild elephant, ready to explode like a cannon.

As the story begins, young Kumudha finds a solution to her family’s poverty by magically transforming herself into a flowering tree and then selling the flowers in the market. The Prince happens to see this miraculous enchantment, falls in love, and arranges to marry her. The harmonic transformation, as Kumudha turns herself into a tree, is phenomenal. Adam’s musical expression of the event is as magical as the event itself. Later, on their wedding night, Kumudha learns that her new husband is obsessed by her ability to transform herself. In order for them to consummate their marriage, she is compelled to change herself for him. Once again the musical corollary is also enchanting.

Her transformation on their wedding night became its own kind of lovemaking – it was as if her mysterious powers were what made the relationship extraordinary, what made it truly “love making,” beyond mere human sexuality. For the Prince, the fact that she shared her magic with him made their relationship transcendent. His obsession with her supernatural ability was not simply a fetish, but in the universe of allegory, was the unique quality that made their love exalted. When they finally lay down together, the music evoked the buzzing of bees.

Unfortunately, the Prince’s sister secretly discovers them and also becomes obsessed and envious of Kumudha’s powers. The Princess invites Kumudha to a party and insists that she perform the transformation for the group. Although Kumudha asks them to respect the process, they do exactly the opposite, interrupting the magic and leave her in a limbo state. Half tree half woman, she is left to wander on her own in the countryside. Her husband looks for her but finding her nowhere is left despondent and becomes a wandering monk himself. In one exquisite duet, each of them sings of their memories of each other, without knowing they are singing together.

Much later itinerant and destitute, the Prince finds himself in another kingdom where his sister the Princess has become queen. Kumudha also has wandered into that kingdom, and at the climax and conclusion of the opera they are reunited, each of them recognizing the other’s true identity. Both the music and the story crescendo up to the very last note in a remarkable ending, climax without dénouement. There was an orgy of applause from the audience and then also from the performers, who clearly had a spectacular experience performing the opera. The fully staged version will be the centerpiece of the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York this summer.

The week before, John Adam’s Green Umbrella New Music concert was equally promising. The two young composers he discovered offered music that was intriguing, sophisticated, forward-looking and eminently enjoyable. Between Adams and Gustavo Dudamel, the upcoming season at the LA Philharmonic looks to be spine tingling.

Thomas Aujero Small



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