Although billed as an opera in two acts, A Flowering Tree is possibly better described as a dramatico-musical work, particularly when present in a semi-staged concert performance such as that at the Barbican Centre. The libretto for the work, written by composer John Adams and long-time collaborator Peter Sellars, is based on an old South-Indian folk-tale and adapted from texts by Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan.
It tells the story of Kumudha, a beautiful but poor young girl who transforms herself into a flowering tree to help her impoverished family. One pitcher of water turns her into the tree, from which she gathers flowers and weave garlands to sell, and another pitcher of water returns her to human form. A prince observes the transformation, and after marrying Kumudha, persuades her to perform the transformation for him. Unbeknownst to the couple, the prince's jealous sister is watching, and later demands that Kumudha perform the ritual for her and a group of friends. Once Kumudha turns into a tree, they break her branches, spill the pitcher of water and abandon her. Left limbless, she is eventually discovered by the wandering Prince, who restores her to human form.
Assuming the role of conductor for the performances, Adams is as minimalist in his conducting as he is in his composition, but he extracted a thoroughly atmospheric performance nonetheless. The trio of singers on stage, Jessica Rivera (Kumudha), Russell Thomas (The Prince) and Eric Owens (Storyteller), were strong in their respective roles, and their comfort with one another and the work was evident, although it was Rivera who really shone. Something of an Adams authority - she gave world premiere of this role, which she reprised for her Berliner Philharmoniker debut with Simon Rattle, her European operatic debut was in Adams' opera Doctor Atomic, and she has also performed the soprano solo of his 2000 work El Nino - she was pitch perfect throughout the performance. Even whilst twisted into various contortions as a limbless half-tree half-human, her vocal flair was never compromised.
The pared-back simplistic staging that Sellars has used throughout this festival was again employed here, and although a little lacking when it came to reflecting the magic of the story, it was one of its more successful stagings. This was due mostly to traditional Javanese dancers Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanyo, Astri Kusama Wardani, used to enhance the story telling. They were incredibly adept at visually realising the smallest, delicate movements through to the tree as it blossoms, equally soothing and disturbing when necessary.
It is always difficult to perform works such as these in a concert venue that is not suited to drama, and with the choir restricted to lining up on stage behind the orchestra like a symphony chorus, the scene looked rather cramped. Fortunately the sound was anything but, and the choir, the 'specially imported' Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, burst forth with a vibrancy that matched their brightly-coloured clothing. Whilst Act II presented a darker side of Adams' writing, the end of Scene One almost reminiscent of Stravinsky's Danse Sacrale, there were moments of shimmering strings more typical of Adams' style. The London Symphony Orchestra was in fine form, responsive to Adams, and produced a glittering transfiguration at the end of Act I.
Commissioned for the New Crowned Hope festival celebrating Mozart's 250th anniversary in Vienna last year, the two performances of The Flowering Tree marked the end of the British leg of the festival. It was obviously with this in mind that director Peter Sellars and composer John Adams made much of the work's parallels with Mozart's Die Zauberflote, but these are unnecessary. Of course there are parallels with the themes of love and jealousy and transfiguration, but the piece is worth regarding in its own right. Although criticised in some circles for being too long, The Flowering Tree is less than 2 hours in total. Rather than too long, it seemed a deeply personal and understated piece that unfolds in an organic manner suited to the central theme.