March 6 - For the Balance
Wrote the Adams up in the a.m. for Commuter Times, and will eventually post on 21st-Century Music as well, of course. Nice to have also seen Rachel Condry at the show...
Four Trees in Two Acts
John Adams's "A Flowering Tree," which received its American premiere from
March 1-3 at Davies Hall with the San Francisco Symphony under the composer's
baton, is the Daphne myth times four. Based on texts by A.K. Ramanujan, this
Indian tale far out-arbors the Greek story in multiple transformations of the
young maiden Kumudha ("Koo-moon-ya") across the vegetative divide. And "four"
is the informing number in this fecund and fragrant work that proves a garden
of vocal delights for soprano Jessica Rivera, tenor Russell Thomas, bass Eric
Owens, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.
With intriguing direction by long-time Adams collaborator Peter Sellars, "A
Flowering Tree" took root on a split Davies stage with orchestra and balcony
playing area to the audience left, against three circular-elevated platforms to
the right, somewhat reminiscent of the SFS staging of Richard Wagner's "Flying
Dutchman" in recent memory. But unlike "Fliegende Hollander," the Adams was,
rather than a semi-staged opera, more of an opera-oratorio along the lines of
Igor Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex," complete with a narrator (Owen's sung role)
and a Greek chorus which does not participate in the action, but rather
comments and dramatizes, even to the point of taking up what in other contexts would
be lines of the principal players (again the I.S. connection).
This abstract approach was reinforced by the use of delightful doppelganger
Indonesian dancers (Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto, and Astri Kussuma Wardani),
setting up one of several cultural dichotomies in the work (English solo
libretto, Tamil folk tale, Javanese movement), to which was added a further
multiculturalism in the use of Spanish throughout for the choral component. While
Adams explains the latter usage due to the presence of the vocal group Schola
Cantorum de Caracas at the Vienna premiere (November 14, 2006), this could also be
on account of the composer's success in setting Spanish in "El Nino."
And the music? Superb. Adams's command of the contemporary orchestra is
second to none (including the demonstrative horn homage to the Wagner "Rhinegold"
that opens Act II of "Tree"), and he writes some of the most engaging choral
music this side of G.F. Handel. In the spirit of Claudio Monteverdi, Adams
has his recitatives well in hand, but also as in the first great opera
composer's work, arias and the like are relatively scarce. Orchestra, chorus,
recitative, aria -- three out of four at the top of his game.
As in Camille Saint-Saens's "Symphony No. 3," where two movements proved to
each subdivide, resulting in a more characteristic four-section symphonic
structure, so Adams's acts each divide into flowerings on behalf of the mother, the
prince, the evil sister-in-law, and the happy reunion. The music is
comparatively light on direct Indian references, save for the sinuous wind lines heard
in the transformations and a boffo chorus that utilizes tabla-drum speech
rhythms. Often the engaging orchestral components seem sprung from another world
free of direct connections to vocal melodies or old-style functional bass
The "Flores" chorus of Act I and the lovely aria-becoming-duet in Act II are
among other highlights, which also include the final crescendi that end each
act. The audience was captivated, and -- if the work falls somewhere between
"Nixon and China" and "Ceiling/Sky" on the one hand, and "The Death of
Klinghoffer" and "Dr. Atomic" on the other, with respect to tunefulness (at least in
the solo voice capacity) -- "A Flowering Tree" is yet another strong branch in
Adams's impressive operatic Eden.