Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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

You Are the Forest

May 18, 2009

John Adams with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale
Photo: mine 2009

John Adams’ A Flowering Tree finally arrived in Los Angeles this weekend after performances around the globe. As is typically the case, all this traveling has honed the work to the point where now it is finally getting the performance it deserves at Disney Concert Hall. I'd wager this weekend's performances are the best the work has seen. Adams led the Los Angeles Philharmonic himself in a semi-staged production directed by Peter Sellars with the original cast of Eric Owens, Jessica Rivera, and Russell Thomas in addition to three dancers. In fact, little has changed with the work since I saw it over two years ago in San Francisco, including my general feelings about it. However, the things that were different here in Los Angeles were substantial. First and foremost was the massive amount of space the cast had in Disney Concert Hall compared to some of its other stops. Occupying a stage-spanning riser behind the orchestra, the six principal cast members had the room to actually move. Seated behind them were the members of the L.A. Master Chorale dressed in bright neon colored South Asian garb and the Frank Gehry designed pipe organ lit with the colors of the rainbow. The sound was quite a bit richer as well, likely due to a combination of the impeccable playing of the L.A. Philharmonic with this kind of material and the superlative acoustics of Disney Hall. This meditative and hypnotic score seems more certain now, and the cast have come to inhabit the roles, singing them with an abundance of warmth and assurance.

The work is based on a South Asian myth concerning a young woman, Kumudha, who is able to transform herself at will via a ritual into a flowering tree. She initially does so in an effort to support her poor family by making beautiful flowers. However, when the local prince discovers her rare ability, he falls in love and marries her. Sadly, Kumuhda is severely maimed by her envious sister-in-law who persuades her to perform her "trick" in order to leaving her trapped between human and tree form. Kumuhda wanders the streets for years in her newly deformed body until she is again reunified with her husband. Like many other myths, the plot here can be slow, with little getting under way until Act II. But I'm not sure that this is really all that different from other operatic works based on myths. Think Parsifal. In fact, that might be the best thing to do, given that Wagner appears to hover more and more over Adams work as the years go by.

The strongest parts of A Flowering Tree are those divorced entirely from the narrative, where the music alone is left to create the images of Kumudha's transformation to tree and back. Or as my friend Howard but it, it's akin to the second act of Siegfried. There are a couple of wonderful vocal bits as well, though, including Khumuda's aria "You are the forest" in Act I and the closing duet between Kumudha and the prince. I was generally more taken with the piece this time around than on my first exposure. There seemed to be more of an intensity here, and, while all of the multicultural elements that make up the experience were still there, I felt less beaten about the head with them. The work still comes off as a big, bright, colorful hug - it's pretty, but with minimal edge and conflict. The dancers who mimic and act out the libretto, now seem an integral part of the production. They seamlessly meshed with the the three impeccable vocal artists in the cast. Maybe it's just familiarity from repeated exposure, but it seemed to gel more for me this time around. As to whether or not A Flowering Tree will have the same legs as El Nino or any of Adams' operas remains to be seen, but it is surely an attractive diversion even in the short term.


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