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The Magical Mystery Masque

New York
Rose Theatre, Lincoln Centre
08/13/2009 -  & August 14*, 16, 2009
John Adams: A Flowering Tree (New York Premiere)
Sanford Sylvan (Storyteller), Jessica Rivera (Kumudha), Russell Thomas (Prince), Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto and Astri Kusuma Wardani (Dancers and Choreography)
Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, Marie Guinand (Artistic Director), Orchestra of St. Luke’s, John Adams (Conductor)
Gabriel Berry (Costume Design), James F. Ingalls (Lighting Design), Mark Grey (Sound Design), Diane J. Malecki (Executive Producer), Peter Sellars (Director)

Act II tableau (© Richard Termine)

After the calculated calculus of Doctor Atomic, I had the feeling that perhaps the Adams-Sellars collaboration was going dry, or, worse, was driving on automatic pilot. After seeing the second performance of A Flowering Tree, I–like many in Rose Hall–fluttered or flew into Columbus Circle. For on so many levels, these two have created a near-opera, near masterpiece on a dozen different levels.

I say “near-opera”, even though Mr. Adams had said it was modeled on Magic Flute. But the first act of A Flowering Tree is less an opera or singspiel and more of a 17th Century masque. The story was bucolic and pastoral, the three singers were cutouts, the music was typical Adams, the choreography was delightful, but it was not opera.

Yet this story, based on a 2,000-year-old Dravidian tale of transformation, tribulation and redemptiona, changed so dramatically in Act II, that the beauty of the beginning was seen as a reflection of loveliness. The reality was so much more complicated that the masque became a tempestuous story with a uniquely intricate way of telling that story.

Adapted from texts by Attipart Krishnaswami Ramanujan by John Adams and Peter Sellars, the linear tale is of utmost simplicity. The peasant girl Kumudha chooses to change herself into a tree so she can sell the flowers in the marketplace to help her mother. Unlike Daphnae, she can change herself back again with some water. A Prince sees this and asks his father to procure the girl. He is cold in the nuptial bed until she performs her little “trick” for him, and they make love. Act Two is the Cinderella story. Kumudha’s jealous sister has her change into a tree, then she and her friends tear the girl’s branches down, leaving her–dare I say it?–a stump left in the gutter. The Prince, searching for her, becomes emaciated until finding her again, when they both revive.

A simple story, but Adams and, especially Sellars, have transformed it with greater feeling and surprise than the story itself. The clue has been given by John Adams’ lauding of the last movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. And what is that 41st Symphony but the seamless weaving of five totally different themes into one gorgeous fabric?

Sellars, with but three singers, three dancers, a chorus and orchestra, has offered that counterpoint. The first “theme” is the orchestra, which has an 18th Century transparency despite a large battery of percussion. The second theme are the three singers: Girl, Prince and Storyteller. Third is the amazing Schola Cantorum of Venezuela, singing in both English and Spanish, dressed in the most shatteringly gorgeous South Indian colors (costume designer Gabriel Berry must share honors with Adams and Sellars) rising on the stage, or sitting in the background. Fourth are the three dancers, all from Surakata, the artistic capital of Java, dancing stylized Javanese steps minus gamelan. (Eku Supriyanto does a singular Monkey Dance which I could never imagine either in Java or Bali). Fourth are the dancers not dancing but as doppelgangers of the singers, rising like incorporeal spirits. Fifth is the lighting in the background, subtly changing.

And sixth is the leafless tree, the only prop on the stage. Leafless, yet when chorus or dancers would flutter their fingers, one could easily visualize the leaves fluttering.

The result is not the charming masque of the first act, but a sometimes gruesome, yet never unlikeable drama with music. I don’t believe that John Adams ever exceeded the emotional impact of Nixon in China, nor has the poetry ever been more forceful. He has never reached the controversial politics of Klinghoffer, with its look at both sides of terror. But in A Flowering Tree, he has gone back to antiquity (I believe for the first time) and given a complexity which works.

Though not always. The girl transforms herself back and forth with remarkable ease, even using that metamorphosis as a party game. But that is The poor Prince who loses his bearing is shadowed out with remembrances of Seventh Seal.

On the wondrous side, the music has a variety of styles which are not grafted à la Tan Dun. The Balinese dancing does go along with the syncopated music. The sudden Spanish outbursts of the choir do work as an “exotic” language (even if the language is not of the Tamil family). The rituals of the characters are not exactly of any country, although the Javanese intuition is there. The costumes are so shattering that one can look upon this as a Renaissance painting, albeit with Indian glistening beads.

The three major voices were all strong, all declaimed with such clarity that no surtitles would have been necessary (though they worked with the bi-lingual chorus). Mr. Adams’ music had some tumultuous moments, with the most beautiful use of horns and brass, with ghostly open fifths at the beginning of the act. But his usual tremulous chords were all too familiar in the beginning.

I am still unsure how this sounds on recordings, though one has been made with the London Symphony Orchestra. I doubt how they could have bested the Orchestra of St. Luke, for John Adams himself (dressed in ecologically appropriate Robin Hood Green) is a splendid conductor of his work. But A Flowering Tree is such a visual spectacle, such a total experience of music-light-theatre-ritual-fantasy that we who were able to fill the hall of Rose Theatre (and who can manage to get seats for Sunday afternoon) will have witnessed a metamorphosis.

Harry Rolnick



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