During the Greek progression from Myth to Reason -- that most delicate process, almost a Titanomachy, OK let's splurge, almost a Τιτανομαχία that, among other things, gave birth to Philosophy, the Law and a bunch of other things that eventually bore you to death in college, and cue here, among so many others, Jean-Pierre Vernant's amazing work on these matters -- something may have been lost, maybe just a little, during this long process. And it is the ancient sense of, for the lack of a better word, Wonder. (Mankind recently regained it thanks to videogames, but this is either the topic of another post or a future PhD dissertation by OC, so stay tuned).
Therefore may the ancient deities bless John Adams and Peter Sellars, that apparently mismatched duo of big nerds who have created with "A Flowering Tree" what appears to be one of the most important works of their career -- and certainly the most purely beautiful.
It's fitting that almost one year ago, OC was last in New York City's intimate Rose Theater for the 2008 Mostly Mozart Festival's production of Kaija Saariaho’s "La Passion de Simone", directed by Sellars and starring Dawn Upshaw. That spirit remained, and OC was back in the same house for another modern work with very similar and haunting undertones.
For all the pitfalls he sometimes gleefully dives into, just for the hell of it probably, Opera Chic loves Peter Sellars, that impish Puck of a man full of larger-than-life ideas (Cosi' fan Tutte in a diner, Le Nozze in the Trump Towers). Maybe John Adams's 21st century opera, "A Flowering Tree", didn't eventually need any of Sellar's gorgeous or perfect ideas to stand on its own. Because musically it's an impressively solid work, and it doesn't matter how much the purists might find it too "simple" (as if simplicity weren't the fundamental ingredient of most if not all ancient art). Sellars, as Adams's frequent partner-in-crime, this time found an Adams opera that is full of such lush expression and brilliant, visual passages which effortlessly weave an unmistakable narrative, that he didn't really need to overplay his hand. And, bless him, he didn't.
“Do not move / Let the wind speak / that is paradise", in the heavenly words of that crazy Jew-hating giant, Ezra Pound, the wretched twentieth century's wretched, greatest poet. That's what Sellars did -- he let the wind speak. He left his trusty sledgehammer (see: Doctor Atomic) home for once and didn't overplay his hand.
Since its inception in 2006 after being earlier commissioned by New Crowned Hope Festival (to ring in the 250th birth year of Mozart), Adams's "A Flowering Tree" has buzzed its way around the world through Berlin, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London. Now New York City is hosting the much anticipated opera, which made its Big Apple premiere this past Thursday night, in Opera Chic's presence, in the acoustically-superb Rose Theater for the 2009 Mostly Mozart Festival. Its part of the MMF, as Adams' opera is aligned with the same major themes as Wolfgang's last opera, Die Zauberflöte, dealing similarly with dark arts, transformations, trials by fire, and moral awareness.
With the libretto by John Adams and Peter Sellars the story is based on an ancient, Indian folktale, full of transformations, mythological allusions, and heartbreaking morality. Compact and perfectly balanced, "A Flowering Tree" calls for Lyric soprano, tenor, baritone. The orchestra: picc, 2 fl, 2 ob (2=Eng hrn), soprano recorder, alto recorder, 2 clar, bass cl, bsn, contrbsn (=bsn); 4 hrn, 2 tpt, timpani, 2 percussion, harp, celesta and strings. There is also a corps of shadow figures, silent dancers who mime action and reenact the fable-driven narrative with gorgeous dance and pantomime.
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The mythological tale is told in just under two hours, and revolves around Kumudha, the impoverished young peasant who finds that she has the power to turn herself into a flowering tree, to yield blooms that can be sold in the market to bring money to their ailing, old mother. Of course, her powers eventually devour her, and bring heartache and sorrow, which leave her isolated from her Princely husband, deformed and ridiculed in the streets. As most fairy tales go, a Bollywood ending awaits -- Kumudha is found, remade whole by her Prince, and love once again thrives.
John Adams, conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke's, was at the helm of the multifaceted transformation that swept through the Rose Theater on Friday night and brought the audience to their feet in an emotional standing ovation...reverberating cheers from the beaming audience (that echoed around the acoustically superb concert hall), the quicksilver Sellars enthralled with his dancers, singers, orchestra and chorus as much as the audience was enchanted.
Adams, in an emerald green silk vest and a turquoise cotton shirt, rocked St. Luke's with his shimmering and enthralling composition (overseen by the precise and professional concertmaster, Celeste Golden). His tender libretto, full of delicate and sensuous humanity, was secondary to the absolute precision of a subtly-crafted score. At the base of it all is the love story between the Prince and Kumudha, 'tho it's easy to forget in all the symbolism of the story. Radiant and intense, Adams painted an intimate portrait with the composition, rich in poetry and metamorphosis. A highly complex, layered sound that begged for attention, a complete narrative with complex texture. Between the strata came such intricate effects: Kumudha's mother is questioned by the King about her daughter's enchantments, and promptly beats her daughters with a switch, precisely echoed by the skill of Adams' compositional elements. One doesn't need to even acknowledge the passion on stage, rather just to shut your eyes and assemble Adams' acoustic paintings.
The streamlined production by Sellars was solid, of earth and rock, to which Adams' fluid score flowed. The elemental philosophies of earth wind water and fire were overt, nature being called on throughout the entire opera. It was the two pitchers of water that aided and halted Kumudha's transformation process. There were drenching rain storms, burning fires, and endless birds that filled the score with their lighter-than-air calls. Adams created such a constantly building, buzzing, humming lushness, that the silences were disquieting, leaving the audience more chilled than the glimmering swells.
Much of the sumptuous imagery was brought by Maria Guinand’s famous Schola Cantorum de Venezuela chorus, benefit of Venezuela's excellent system. The mixed group chorus sang in both Spanish and English, slipping into various different roles effectively. There were hollow, gorgeous sounds evocative of Mozart's masses as well as jazzy, spirited sounds evocative of Adams' composition. This is a fantasy, a fable, a waking dream where anything goes, and the chorus became a blank slate that easily mimicked. Costumes were bright saris in Javanese colors (purples, magentas, mangoes), the womens' emblazoned skirts with bright mirrors and polished studs that vibrated with the unobtainable energy that they gave off.
American soprano Jessica Rivera (not to be confused with the awesome American mezzo Jennifer Rivera) sang the lead (she also sang the role at the 2006 world premiere in Vienna's supersweet MuseumsQuartier). Her anchoring voice filled her character with an introspective intelligence, full of a pensive meditation.
Tenor Russell Thomas sang the Prince, and lent a raw, passionate insightful feel, while a powerful presence and secure timbre complimented the character.
The omniscient storyteller was swapped-out from American bass-baritone Eric Owens (he pulled out of the performance for health reasons) and was replaced by Sanford Sylvan. We were really looking forward to hearing Owens in the role, as he also sang in the 2006 Vienna world premiere). Physical opposites, Sylvan naturally changed the on stage dynamic, which OC won't say that it didn't necessarily work; regardless, it created an intriguing commentary of the storyteller's destiny. Sylvan worked well in his stoic read, but at times was too intense, hushed gently by a multi-tasking Adams.
Sellars added three Javanese dancers who shadowed the characters and enriched the storyline with gorgeous choreography, enacting Latin and Gamelon dancing. Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto, and Astri Kusama Wardani were all equal standouts, their moves entrancing and magical.
Opera Chic used to think that Doctor Atomic was Adams's best opera; now she's not so sure. DA remains his most complex, most ambitious, most Wagnerian -- a work he can rightfully brag about. Some composers -- not all of them, sadly -- really do get better with age -- less dogmatic, more flexible, more streamlined, more willing to just trust their instincts. Hans Werner Henze, with his astonishing Phaedra, is a case in question. "A Flowering Tree" even more than "Doctor Atomic" proves that Adams, born in 1947, might very well be such a composer. And one is truly excited -- and already grateful -- thinking of his future works. This from someone who, like Opera Chic, has never really joined until now the --otherwise distinguished -- Adams fan club.
At the very base of this multicultural melange is a love story. Which is why Adams's music and libretto is so accessible. It's for everyone out there -- it doesn't require a so-called "expert" -- whatever that might mean, since it's difficult to argue that Mozart, Verdi or Puccini wrote operas for the musicologists -- to understand the beauty and serenity and the very living heartbeat of Adams' "A Flowering Tree".
It just takes a pure musical spirit.