Review: John Adams’ ‘A Flowering Tree’

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Before “A Flowering Tree,” which the Los Angeles Philharmonic festively mounted Friday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall, John Adams created five theater works with Peter Sellars that shunned the miraculous.

Simple solutions were simply not an option in subject matter that incorporated the cumbersome conflicts between East and West (“Nixon in China”), Arab and Jew (“The Death of Klinghoffer”), creation and destruction (“Doctor Atomic”). In “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky,” a Los Angeles earthquake transforms society. “El Nino,” a nativity story, is the wonder of all birth, not the divine; the tone is buoyant -- but once more pain and suffering require transcendence.

While similarly prone to pain and suffering, “A Flowering Tree,” the most recent Adams-Sellars collaboration, is different. It is a miracle opera based upon an ancient folk tale from India. Magic pervades the work’s atmosphere, and a blissfully beautiful two-hour score enchants from first bar to last.

If “El Nino” is a modern-day “Messiah,” “Flowering Tree” has its roots in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” The premiere was at Sellars’ New Crowned Hope festival in Vienna, a 2006 celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday. Adams and Sellars had just come off the high-pressure job of “Doctor Atomic,” which had its premiere in San Francisco in 2005. “Flowering Tree” was the antidote to Robert Oppenheimer and the making of the first atomic bomb. But “Flowering Tree,” which was quickly composed in what sounds like a state of sustained exuberance, is also a follow-up, since Oppenheimer’s devotion to Indian Vedic literature pervades his mood at Los Alamos.


The story concerns a young girl who learns to transform herself into a tree so she can sell the flowers to help feed her mother and sister. A prince is besotted with her and her feat, but she falls victim to the antics of prince’s callous sister. During a transformation, Kumudha’s branches are broken and she returns to human form without arms or legs. The prince renounces worldly possessions to seek her out. After years of wandering, he finally finds her and makes her whole again.

Sellars and Adams fashioned their own graceful libretto but allow the tale be told in various ways through various media and cultures. The sung roles are for narrator, Kumudha and the prince. Sellars cunningly weaves into the narrative fabric three extraordinarily poetic Javanese dancers (Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto and Astri Kusuma Wardani). In the first act they move slowly, like the river of time, but also are entrusted to some of the action. In the second act, they become essential alter egos of Kumudha and the prince.

“Flowering Tree” has needed a couple of years of watering to mature (it’s been presented in San Francisco, Berlin, London and Tokyo; this summer it will be a main attraction of Mostly Mozart in New York). The original Vienna performances with a makeshift Venezuelan orchestra and Adams conducting (at one point Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra were to have been involved) were not tidy.

But the production was a joyous riot of color. Orchestra and chorus were draped in acres of vibrant Indian cloth by Gabriel Berry, and George Tsypin designed a gorgeous sylvan set.

At Disney, the Los Angeles Master Chorale was lavishly costumed, but unfortunately the orchestra didn’t take the time for fittings and dressed in black. The set proved inappropriate for the Disney stage and was not used. But at least James F. Ingalls wrangled Disney’s bargain-basement lighting system into sweetly tinted pools of finessed light.

The singing was exceptional. In her few short years working with Adams and Sellars, Jessica Rivera has grown into a radiant soprano. Her deeply affecting Kumudha will be the model for all who follow her in this marvelous role. Baritone Eric Owens was a compelling, moving narrator. Tenor Russell Thomas was, in Vienna, a tentative prince; now he is commanding one.

The chorus sings in Spanish when it is not imitating Indonesian monkey chant. The Master Chorale nailed everything.

Adams conducted with rhythmic intensity. I imagine this was a manifestation of how he wrote “Flowering Tree,” never stopping for breath. The opera flows almost like an Indian raga, with little distinction between decorative elements and structural ones. The sounds are magical. Recorders help create the musical ecosystem for Kumudha’s transformation music. Wagnerian brass are an unexpected delight in the second act.

On Friday, Adams pressed a flexible orchestra, which was subtly amplified to blend with amplified voices, and it could not fully flower. Is it possible to argue with the composer’s own interpretation? Adams created the roses and may not need to stop to smell them. But soon enough other conductors will surely succumb to the temptation to savor the musical miracles of this “Flowering Tree.”

-- Mark Swed