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San Francisco Symphony

A Flowering Tree

John Adams

March 2, 2007

John Adams

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Transformative Beauty

By Jeff Dunn

You drown, eyes open,
towards the Indies, the antipodes.
And you, always so perfectly sane.
— A. K. Ramanujan

The shimmering beauty of the music, the magical Tamil tale of transformative love vs. adversity, and the exceptional performances all made John Adams’ opera/oratorio A Flowering Tree yet another diadem among the premieres that have graced an exceptional season of the San Francisco Symphony. On the podium on Friday was Adams himself, contained and always so perfectly sane in public. From the stage, a flood of antipodal cultural references engulfed an enthusiastically appreciative audience. The piece was definitely an eye-opener, inspired again in collaboration with the idea-brilliant, execution-flawed Peter Sellars.

Generally speaking, this music is the most effective yet penned by Adams. His minimalist upbringing barely shows. To create some tonal exoticism, most of Act I seems to be in a medieval mixolydian mode (a scale sounding like G to G on the piano’s white keys). The melodic lines are more emotive, the orchestration more transparent, the style positivistic in evoking the sound of previous composers.

The opening notes are transporting. Taking Wagner’s woodbird music accompaniment from Siegfried and pasting on it a low melody in a peculiar doubling, Adams conjures up the Sibelius of the Sixth Symphony. Later, in highly accented, simply phrased, fortissimo choral passages, the shade of Carl Orff Carmina-izes. During the wedding music, slashing strings typical of the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara are heard. At the beginning of Act II, blatantly Wagnerian horn phrases burst out. Yet all these Western and Nordic references are carefully immersed in genetic Adams: No harm, no postmodern foul.

One drawback in Adams’ current musical vocabulary is a tendency to finish every line with a trochaic one- or two-syllable downward melodic leap. This musical signature becomes graffiti with overuse.

Scene From A Flowering Tree

The libretto is taken from a story in Tamil, one of the main languages of southern India, translated by the Tamil scholar and poet A.K. Ramanujan (1929-1993), who worked at the University of Chicago. Adams and Sellars adapted it in simple and effective English blank verse. The heroine of the tale, nameless in Ramunjan’s version, is called Kumudha in the opera, after a nocturnal species of lotus flower. She determines she can turn herself into a flowering tree — although her namesake is aquatic — and shed flowers for sale to support her aging mother. A prince sees her perform the magic ritual with her sister, is filled with desire, and marries her.

The two discover love when she performs private arborizations for his pleasure, but a jealous sister-in-law gets her to do it away from the Prince, interferes with the ritual, and leaves Kumudha an armless, legless freak. Separated from one another, the lovers languish, but are eventually reunited by servants, their love restored and wiser. Excluded from the libretto is the fate of the sister-in-law, tossed in a pit of burning lime when the King finds out what she did.

Cultural Cognitive Dissonance

Much of the story is carried by a bass Storyteller. Comment on the action is provided in Spanish by a mixed chorus. Why Spanish? “We are living in a time of global cultural awareness, with all its pain and wonder,” says Adams. I suppose that’s why the music is American, German, and Nordic; the libretto English, from Tamil, and Spanish for the Schola Cantorum de Caracas, the group asked to do the premiere in Vienna last November. Oh, and the dancers are Indonesian. There are three: two doppelgängers for the Prince and Kumudha, and one older woman to portray various other characters. The Spanish offers quite a linguistic disconnect, since the music given the chorus is generally more savage and rhythmic.

The dancers would have been more effective if they hadn’t interacted with the singers, and the singers likewise if they hadn’t worn costumes and tried to act. The result, in this poor critic’s mind, was confusion, difficulty of sympathetic identification with the performers, and cultural cognitive dissonance. The role of women in Tamil culture is quite different from more familiar cultures, for instance, but trying to tease that out of the libretto, with all the other references barraging the senses, is a lost cause. Although this is a beautiful opera, it would be far more effective in promoting intercultural understanding if it spent more time in southern India.

For what was supposed to be a concert performance, considerable effort and expense was lavished on staging elements. Multicolored lights burst out at appropriate moments, doing no harm. Dancers cavorted on various platforms. The Chorus wore brightly colored pastels, presumably promoting the floral theme. The dancers were dressed in Indonesian costumes befitting the social stations of the characters. The lovers, inexplicably, wore jeans. Maybe this was an effort on the part of Sellars or costume designer Gabriel Berry to evoke contemporary youth. After her marriage, Kumudha wore a highly unflattering pink shift with sequins that sent distracting reflections all over Davies Hall. The Storyteller wore a simple cotton or linen robe.

But providing some staging just made the absence of the key element, the transformation into a tree, all the more unsatisfying. Miming it wasn’t enough. All in all, it would have been better if the singers had worn concert outfits, as they would have for Handel, and the rest had been left up to the imagination, an audience capacity all too often neglected by producers.

Superior Singing

Besides the music, the other glory of the performance was soprano Jessica Rivera’s rendition of Kumudha — on the money in the upper registers, gorgeous in the lower. What astounded me was how well she sang lying down on her back or wrapped up around her doppelgänger in a quasi-fetal position during the limbless phase of her character. Eric Owens was clear and commanding as the Storyteller. Tenor Russell Thomas, a bit dry at the start, warmed quickly into the passionate intensity required of the Prince. The Symphony musicians performed superbly under Adams’ conservatory-correct technique.

Contrary to Thomas May’s program annotation, which decries the postmodernist attitude as “anything-goes smugness,” Adams’ new opera/oratorio is gentle, heartfelt, sensitive, caring — yet firmly postmodernist in its polystylistic references and multicultural ambitions. The one modernist element is the too-much-goes appearance of directorial largess.

(Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of NACUSA and president of Composers Inc.)

©2007 Jeff Dunn, all rights reserved