John Adams is one of the most important contemporary opera composers. His operas often tackle big themes in current affairs or recent history – think of Nixon in China, Klinghoffer, and Dr Atomic. It is therefore a surprise to come across A Flowering Tree, based on an old South Indian folk tale. The same sort of surprise as coming across the lyrical Writing to Vermeer after Louis Andriessen’s other angular, confronting operas such as Rosa.
A Flowering Tree was written for the Mozart year of 2006, in response to Peter Sellars’ appeal for modern magical operas reflecting in some way The Magic Flute. Like Mozart’s many-layered final opera, underneath its magical folk story A Flowering Tree displays many other stories both contemporary and universal.
Once upon a time there was a girl who lived in an Indian village with her sister and her mother. They were very poor. This girl, entrancingly played by Eva Kong, discovers when she reaches puberty that she can turn herself into a tree with wonderful fragrant flowers. A prince observes her transforming herself, and immediately falls in love with her. But he finds her uninteresting as a girl, and demands that she transform herself into a tree. The prince’s sister, jealous of the girl, damages her and disfigures her. Disgraced, the girl leaves the palace. Distraught, the prince goes about as a beggar in search of her. Eventually he finds her in a troupe of musicians – she is the singer. Transformed by their bitter experiences, their love is now altogether deeper.
But the girl, called Kumudha by Adams, can only transform into a tree if the ritual associated with it is performed “with care and respect”. The jealous sister does not do this, resulting in serious damage to the tree/girl. Here we find a parallel with modern environmental destruction, a contemporary relevance as in Adams’ other operas, and one which is particularly pertinent for us Australians. The care and respect demonstrated by our indigenous population in their ceremonies sustains the earth and beautifies it. When white invaders cut down trees and savage the ground for coal and minerals, they seriously damage it. But a return of the care and respect may heal it again.
This production was semi-staged; the orchestra was centre stage as in a concert, and the principals walked in front and on both sides of the orchestra, sometimes going behind it to a tiny stage underneath a large vertical video screen, on which were projected representations of the tree’s transformation, enlarged shots of the principals, and dissolves of various instruments in the orchestra. Sometimes the use of video was extremely effective, as for the transformations. But I felt that when we saw bits of the orchestra it was as if Mic Gruchy, the video master, had been reluctant to leave the screen empty, and felt he had to fill it with something. I think the video would have been more effective if it had been reserved for the powerful expressions of drama that couldn’t be represented so strongly by the principals on stage, and sometimes just left still.
There are only three principals, the other parts in the story being taken by the chorus, who sing with great gusto in both English and, oddly, Spanish. The part of the Storyteller was sung by Craig Colclough, so clearly that the production team was able to dispense with surtitles for his contribution. Adrian Dwyer sang the Prince with beautiful tenor clarity too, carefree in the first act and careworn in the second, but always a lovely sound. And Eva Kong, having by far the largest part as Kumudha, was able to show off just about every aspect of her commanding versatility, from astral purity above the stave to dark sorrow below it; from delicate coloratura as a young girl to overarching power in phrases with extremely wide tessitura at she rails against the outrages perpetrated against her.
Like Andriessen in Writing to Vermeer, Adams in The Flowering Tree gives us a score that is gentle, chamber-music-like, and lyrical, only rarely entering the harsh world of repetitive sounds that characterise Nixon, for example. In the interval, a friend of mine compared the score to Philip Glass; my view is that Adams’ compositional use of minimalism consists in knowing just when to move on before any pattern loses interest, while Glass’ consists in seeing how long he can keep something up before the audience actually walks out. Here the strings shimmer; the upper winds glisten as they represent the beautiful flowers; the bass clarinet (Nicholas Harmsen) is sometimes threatening, but mostly gently supportive; and the large percussion group is mostly used for enlivening the upper registers with celesta, bells, vibraphone etc. Only in the scene where the mother beats the two sisters, suspecting them (perhaps correctly) of prostituting themselves at the market to help the family finances, and in the scene of Kumudha’s disfigurement at the hands of the prince’s sister, do the strings and brass flail cruelly. In this performance the whole was controlled expertly by the conductor, Natalie Murray Beale, who guided the orchestra unhurriedly yet precisely, as if this music needed no special pleading.
Opera Queensland deserves great praise for opening their 2019 season with this lovely work. If there is one contemporary opera to make audiences realise that it is still a wonderful artistic form, and that we don’t always need Puccini, this is it.
Opera Queensland presents
A Flowering Tree
by John Adams
Director Patrick Nolan
Venue: QPAC – Concert Hall | Corner Melbourne St and Grey St, South Brisbane QLD
Dates: 2 – 6 Apr 2019
Tickets: $49 – $109