Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

In Bloom

March 03, 2007

Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto, Astri Kusuma Wardani, Jessica Rivera, Russell Thomas
Photo: CAL Performances 2007

I am a great fan of John Adams’ music. I think Doctor Atomic is a masterpiece and I still cry at the end of El Niño. So it was with great interest and excitement that I traveled to San Francisco this weekend to see the US Premiere of his latest oratorio/operatic work, A Flowering Tree. With such high expectations, some disappointment of course is inevitable. While Tree isn’t as great as either of those two earlier works, it still has numerous charms and is often quite beautiful.

Adams and director Peter Sellars adapted the libretto from the poetry of A.R. Ramanujan and the story concerns a legend from Southern India about a young woman, Kumudha, with a magical power to transform herself into a flowering tree. A young prince falls in love with her, but they are separated when his sister and her friends compel her to perform her transformation and break off her branches. She is unable to return to human form and is ostracized as a monstrosity. In the end, she is reunited with her prince who saves her by mending her branches and helping her return to human form.

Tree was inspired by Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte as part of Vienna’s New Crowned Hope festival last year, which Mr. Sellars curated. Sellars hoped that the major works in the festival would reference the three major woks Mozart worked on in the last year of his life and Adams chose to Mozarts magical opera for inspiration. Both works are purportedly written in a straight-forward and stripped down style emphasizing magical elements and simple human joys. Sellars made a point of trying to sell Tree as a plea for peace and our common humanity during “difficult times.” This is a noble sentiment. But while there are many wonderful things in the opera, this interpretation may be a bit of an overstatement. It is a beautiful love story and does deal with redemption. As to wheter or not this redemption applies to all humanity depends on one's perspective. Of course Sellars and Adams go for broke in incoporating a dizzying array of multicultural elements to carry this point across from the spanish-language chorus to south asian dances. But does all of this really add up? Even if it doesn't, it may be beautiful enough not to notice

The piece is two and a half hours with one intermission and involves three vocalists: a soprano, a tenor, and a bass..This weekend, as in the debut, these performers included Jessica Rivera as Kumudha, Russel Thomas as the Prince, and Eric Owens as the Storyteller who narrates much of the piece. Rivera also starred in Golijov’s Ainadamar as Nuria and here she was radiant and heart-breaking. Owens is also rapidly building a career in new music over the last few years as well including the roles of Gen. Leslie Owens in Doctor Atomic and the title role in Goldenthal’s Grendel. His tone grows richer and richer each time I’ve seen him and his performance was admirable. This semi-staged version also included three Javanese dancers who would act out events in parallel with the vocalists on stage. Surprisingly, this works very well and adds a great deal to the story, often amplifying the casts’ vocals and actions.

The music itself is clearly cut from the same cloth as Adams’ recent work including “shimmering” strings and big choruses. It is often pretty including the sequences where Kumudha transforms into a tree and the passages of expression of love between the two principals. But nothing in the work is quite as moving as the childrens’ chorus from El Niño or “Batter my heart” from Doctor Atomic. But all in all it is an a piece well worth future repeated listening.

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