"A Flowering Tree," which had its American premiere in Davies Hall this
weekend, has some of John Adams' best work - in fact, it's a two-hour
treasure house of beautiful music. Obviously a (or the) leading opera
composer of our time, Adams has never given us such emotional, just plain
gorgeous sound as in "Flowering Tree." It is a major, wonderful work,
one which - significantly - leaves the listener wishing to hear it again,
and wanting more like it.
Coming from its Vienna world premiere, where it was part of a festival
celebrating Mozart, the opera is somewhat related to "The Magic Flute,"
dealing with transformations. Adams and director Peter Sellars wrote
the libretto based on an ancient southern Indian folktale about a young
woman who can turn herself into a tree. She sacrifices her human form
in order to support her poor family by selling the flowers she produces.
A prince falls in love with the girl, and her transformations create
dramatic conflicts, including a static second act that she spends as a
Adams conducting the San Francisco Symphony on three consecutive nights
(this report is from Saturday), everything clicked, and considering the
large, unusual forces employed in Sellars' production, that in itself
is a triumph.
Although thrilled by the three soloists, the chorus, and the Javanese
dancers, my first acknowledgment is for the orchestra, especially the
strings. Never has Adams lavished so much shimmering, hushed, singing
music on the violins, and - with concertmaster Alexander Barantschik in
the lead - those violins sang their hearts out all evening long.
With "undertones" of Janacek, Ravel, and Richard Strauss, this music
from Adams is the finest achievement of transformed, exalted minimalism.
It is also different from the composer's other works. Of Adams' best,
there is the great pathos of the choruses in "Death of Klinghoffer," and
the moving grandeur of the "The Person'd God" aria from "Doctor Atomic,"
but "Flowering Tree" is not a work of highlights - it is a great opera
of consistent high quality, although of many different sounds and moods.
Unlike some of the intellectually-generated structure and the audible
reaching for effect elsewhere, Adams here writes from the heart.
Responding to that brilliantly, bass Eric Owens (narrator), soprano
Jessica Rivera and tenor Russell Thomas sang simply, without artifice,
and surpassingly well. Owens has grown enormously, from a "good bass"
to one with potential to sing even the most challenging roles. Adams'
narrator is similar to the Gurnemanz of "Parsifal" in interspersing
Evangelist-type story-telling with personal comments and emotional
response to the story. Owens shone in all aspects of the role.
Rivera and Thomas, both making their local debut, impressed mightily
with beauty of tone, powerful projection (quite apart from the lamentable
Adams-Selllars insistence on amplification), and their stage work. It's
such a waste, however, to have Rivera wriggle on the floor for most of
Act 2, as a legless, armless tree trunk, rather than sing. The wonderful
dancers enacting the story should have left the singers to do what they
are best at. The veteran Javanese court dancer Rusini Sidi, the very
young but accomplished Eko Supriyanto, and Astri Kusuma Wardani, who
mixes Javanese classical dance and martial arts, have made major
contributions to the production.
While waiting for the Symphony Chorus' new director, Ragnar Bohlin,
to take up his position, senior Chorus members take turns preparing
productions. David J. Xiques was responsible for "Flowering Tree," the
large, colorfully dressed Chorus singing with its accustomed excellence.
Adams' choral writing here ranges from barely perceptibe background
sound, almost as instruments of the orchestra, to some prominent, savage
participation in the action.
Late-night typos of the mind (thanks, Lisa!)
A typo in the "Doctor Atomic" reference: the aria, of course, is
Also, instead of the heroine spending her time in Act 2 as a tree stump,
it's a partially transformed human: "a stump of flesh, a shapeless thing, a
twisted, mutilated body."
No change: the actual performance is a hearty, welcome surprise, even if you
have a chance to hear the music before. You can quibble over details and the
obvious dramatic slowdown in Act 2 (also true of "Doctor Atomic"), but this
is an *opera* and a good one.
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