The hot ticket this past weekend was John Adams’ latest opera, A Flowering Tree. Walking into the lobby on Sunday afternoon there was a queue of at least 50 people hoping for cancellations. Inside the theater was a starry crowd gathered for the Mostly Mozart event—in the seats just around me were opera singers (Renée Fleming) ballet dancers (Wendy Whelan) rock stars (David Byrne) movie stars (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and even a Nobel Laureate (Toni Morrison).
All of us at Rose Hall were treated to some of John Adams’ best vocal writing to date—and one his finest collaborations with the indefatigable Peter Sellars. A Flowering Tree (which debuted in Vienna back in 2006) was written to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth by paying homage to the composer’s final opera, The Magic Flute. The two operas share exotic settings and plots that involve magic, marriage and a little mayhem (though this is the case with many musical dramas). Regardless of its inspiration, A Flowering Tree works on its own merits.
Adams and Sellars have collaborated on three previous operas—which have been sometimes called CNN operas since their plots have all been based on stories that most people remember watching on TV news (Nixon’s visit to China, and the hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the testing of the Atomic Bomb—too early for TV, but you get the picture). With A Flowering Tree, Sellars & Adams’ libretto instead takes as its source a 2,000-year-old South Indian folk tale about a girl with the power to transform herself into a large tree.
This plot unfolds slowly and diffusely—Sellars seems consciously trying to not make the words too direct as if to give his collaborator room to fill in the meaning with music. Adams does this elegantly: the key dramatic points are brought vividly to life sonically and the characters are defined more by their vocal phrasing than by any aspect of the staging.
A Flowering Tree feels in some ways more an oratorio than an opera. Despite the success of Adams and Sellars’ operatic collaborations, one wonders if this “concert drama” form is where they feel most at ease. Their moving 1999 work El Nino (also a reworking of an old myth—the nativity) is called to mind, both for style of the piece—use of choirs, a mix of languages, a real tenderness in the musical tone—as well as the symbiosis of the collaboration.
Whatever one wants to call it, A Flowering Tree is a refreshing work—and one that plays to Sellars and Adams’ strength as artists. The performances at the Rose Hall were also noteworthy: veteran Sellars/Adams collaborator Sanford Sylvan used his baritone to authoritative effect as the Storyteller (filling in for the indisposed Eric Owens). The rest of the singers—Jessica Rivera, Russell Thomas, and the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela—were repeating roles they performed at the Vienna premiere and they sang with clarity and passion. Adams himself was on-hand to conduct the Orchestra of St. Luke’s—the musicians seemed a bit tentative at times (this was their first crack at the score) but the music they made, like the whole experience, washed over the audience like a soft but steady rain on a summer afternoon.
Photo by Richard Termine