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Cincinnati Opera’s A Flowering Tree Packs a Sensory Wallop

Music Hall
06/30/2011 -  & July 2, 2011
John Adams: A Flowering Tree
Eric Owens (Storyteller), Jessica Rivera (Kumudha), Russell Thomas (The Prince)
Cincinnati Opera Chorus, Henri Venanzi (chorus master), Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Joana Carneiro (conductor)
Brian Robertson (stage director), David Centers (scenic designer), Rebecca Senske (costume designer), Jennie Chacon & Paula Rakestraw (video designers), Thomas C. Hase (lighting designer), Devon Carney (choreographer)

J. Rivera (Courtesy of Cincinnati Opera)

John Adams’ A Flowering Tree, in the new Cincinnati Opera production directed by Brian Robertson, may approach sensory overload. Still, it amounts to an engrossing night at the theater.

Adams’ 2006 work, inspired by Mozart’s The Magic Flute and premiered in Vienna at a 250th-anniversary celebration of his birth, is part opera, part ballet, part drama. The music, one of Adams’ most ravishing scores, is invested primarily in the orchestra, with the voices in declamatory roles.

Based on a 2,000-year-old South Indian folk tale, A Flowering Tree is about love, transformation and redemption (compare The Magic Flute). Kumudha, who is able turn into a flowering tree, sells the flowers to help her poverty-stricken family. Attracted initially by her magic, a Prince marries her. The Prince’s jealous sister coaxes Kumudha to do the “trick” for her friends, who tear at the tree, preventing her complete re-transformation. Now a limbless stump, she crawls away and is adopted by a group of street minstrels. The Prince’s sister, guilt ridden by her brother’s sorrow at Kumudha’s disappearance and the depth of his love, arranges a reunion during which she regains her human form.

Designed by Cincinnati Opera’s David Centers, the set consists of three round, earth-toned platforms of varying size and height backed by a semi-circular projection screen. Upon this canvas, dazzling colors are displayed: Rebecca Senske’s gorgeous costumes, Thomas Hase’s brilliant lighting and a multitude of video sequences by Jennie Chacon, Paul Rakestraw and Patrick Buescher of Cincinnati’s Crossroads Community Church. Robertson, a professor at Northern Kentucky University, directs with a generous, but sure hand, sparing no expense of imagination or effort to make the opera’s possibilities bloom. The videos range from close-ups of Rivera and Thomas to a raging monsoon during the attack on Kumudha-as-tree.

Bass Eric Owens as the Storyteller, soprano Jessica Rivera as Kumudha and tenor Russell Thomas as the Prince re-created their roles from the 2006 premiere in Vienna (miked, as in Adams’ operas generally, giving them an extra edge in 3,400-seat Music Hall). All sang with great tonal beauty and excellent English diction, allied with finely honed acting skills. Owens was a most affecting narrator, shading his commanding voice exquisitely as he described Kumudha’s seemingly hopeless plight in act two.

The dancers, a corps of nine from Cincinnati Ballet, with sweeping, sensuous choreography by Devon Carney, made a brilliant contribution. They advanced the action, heightened emotions and even effected Kumudha’s transformations into the eponymous tree by climbing on each other’s shoulders to form limbs and branches around her. Only the flowers were missing, though in the transformation in the bedroom – Rivera and Thomas sang standing up, as if the bed were viewed from above – there was a drop of large white confetti.

The chorus, who sang in Spanish (a multi-cultural touch by Adams, who wished to utilize an “exotic” language alongside English), performed minor characters, townspeople, etc. to fine effect.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Joana Carneiro, brought the score thrillingly to life. Despite the constant lights-camera-action and stream of projections in the background, there was always the music to immerse oneself in. There were over 70 players in the pit – one of the largest ever for Cincinnati Opera – with 41 strings, a plethora of percussion and a pair of recorders to add a folkish touch. Indeed, there was much “scene-stealing” by the CSO and its principal players.

What will be most remembered about this production are its extremes: the gossamer music of the early transformation scene, the terrifying-to-tender scene in which Kumudha’s mother, perched on the shoulders of a pair of dancers, beats her two daughters before realizing why they have been drawing attention in the marketplace (to sell Kumudha’s flowers for her benefit) and Hase’s ever-magical lighting. Compare the scene in act two where the Prince, grieving and in rags, wanders aimlessly on one side of the stage while Kumudha, cocooned in grey, lies abandoned on the other. The recorders in the CSO sound a keening lament. What a contrast with the final scene, where swaths of colored saris spring up, Kumudha is restored, a hail of confetti falls from above and the CSO sounds Adams’ triumphal, love-conquers-all music.

Cincinnati Opera

Mary Ellyn Hutton



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