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John Adams, A Flowering Tree: Soloists, Ensemble and Orchestra of Chicago Opera Theater, Joana Carneiro (conductor), Harris Theater, Chicago 25.5.2008 (JLZ)


Director - Nicola Raab
Production Design - George Souglides
Lighting Designer: Aaron Black
Sound Designer: Mark Grey

Kumudha: Natasha Jouhl
Prince: Noah Stewart
Storyteller: Sanford Sylvan


Ensemble Members:
Greta Ball, William Bennett,Brad Benoit, Drew Duncan, Anne Graczyk-Druce, Julia Hardin, Peder Reiff

Jennifer Gorman, Nicole Betts, Christie Ceaser, G. "Carlos" Henderson, James Johnson, Ya-Ju Lin, Tood Rhoades, John Ross, Karla Victum

A Flowering Tree is the latest work by  John Adams to reach Chicago audiences in recent years, and it adds to the already strong reception of the composer in this city.  In the 2007-2008 season alone, three of his  works  have been performed in Chicago: the symphonic work Harmonielehre by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the opera Doctor Atomic (2005) by Lyric Opera of Chicago and this latest set of performances of A Flowering Tree by Chicago Opera Theater. The enthusiastic reception that greeted the performances at Symphonic Center and the Civic Opera House was equalled at the Harris Theater, where the composer himself conducted the first three of five performances, with the latter two conducted by Joana Carneiro. Composed several years ago for the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, A Flowering Tree gave Adams the opportunity to pay  homage to the earlier composer's Die Zauberflöte and also to create a different kind of work than Doctor Atomic.

As awkward as comparisons can sometimes be, it is nonetheless useful to point out the ways in which A Flowering Tree differs from Doctor Atomic, a score which Chicago audiences could well have seen prior to A Flowering Tree. While the libretto of Doctor Atomic  has affinities with some of Adams earlier stage works, like The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China in having historic events within the structure of the libretto, the text of A Flowering Tree is based on a South Indian fable. In this sense,  A Flowering Tree differs sufficiently from Doctor Atomic to suggest a shift in style. Nevertheless, both works bring moral issues to the audience, and while the concern about atomic technology and weapons of mass destruction is implicit in the text of Doctor Atomic, equally important lessons emerge from A Flowering Tree with its themes of infatuation and separation, jealousy and its painful consequences; the importance of looking beyond appearances; and, ultimately, of the power of love to redeem the imbalances of human existence. As often happens in Adams' other stage works, the composer coordinates both the action and the explicit language of his libretto to his musical score to emphasise certain ideas in the story, thus integrating  the production.

The plot of A Flowering Tree concerns the efforts of a young woman called Kumudha to alleviate her mother's suffering by earning money and she and her sister sell the flowers that she produces when she magically turns herself into a tree. It is the mercy of the gods that allows Kumudha to achieve this fantastic transformation, albeit under certain conditions that are necessary for her to return to her human state. Calling to mind the historic eras when Hindu practice involved ritual practices, the rites required are the trade-off Kumudha must make for the magic. The resulting wonder meets with various responses, the most important of which is a  Prince's infatuation with her. Yet when Kumudha's mother learns of that her daughter is noticed by royalty, she beats both daughters for fear that they have done  something illicit. Kumudha and her sister reveal their secret, the mother approves, and her daughter is soon affianced to the Prince. The marriage proceeds, but the Prince is inattentive on their wedding night. To Kumudha's surprise, it turns out that the Prince is attracted to Kumudha mostly because of her ability to transform herself into the flowering tree of the title. Kumudha acquiesces to the Prince's request for hewr to do this, and in sharing her secret with her husband, the situation resolves amicably. This is the story up  to the end of the first act, and as such is a self-contained drama.

The second act deals with the jealousy of the Prince's sister when she discovers the secret that her brother's wife possesses. The princess induces Kumudha to perform her transformation in the orchard of the palace for various courtiers, but their casual response to this intense magic interrupts the ritual in which Kumudha is restored to human shape. As a result, Kumudha is left part tree and part woman, an immobile trunk with a head, and all that she can do is sing beautiful, but sad music. Since Kumudha is now unable to return to the palace, the Prince cannot find his bride and assumes that she has run away. He is prostrate with grief and wanders through the country looking for her. Eventually the Prince becomes an abject beggar and, from illness and hunger, essentially loses his mind. At some point, the Prince's sister is married and  the beggar arrives at her court, where she recognizes him as her brother. Some people bring in the singing torso of Kumudha. Now, neither Kumudha nor the Prince are the same as they once were, and the princess has enough wisdom to place them together, where the couple gradually recognize each other. The Prince regains his sanity and performs the ritual that restores Kumudha to her human state, At this point, the opera ends.

To convey the story on stage, Adams used three principal roles, a traditional Indian storyteller portrayed by the baritone Sanford Sylvain, Kumudha is sung by the British soprano Natasha Jouhl and the Prince by the American tenor Noah Stewart. Other parts are mimed by members of the ensemble, with stage movement augmented by the dancers who are part of the production. Scored for full orchestra, the work involves some prominent and  at times, extended percussion passages. As such, the orchestral sound resembles the kind Adams has used in other stage works, with the interplay of rhythmic lines scored throughout the ensemble to give the work a sense of movement.

As to the treatment of the libretto, the use of the narrator to guide the action also serves as an aural point of reference. In this role, Stanford Sylvain articulated the role with exemplary diction, even when the music required somewhat rapid delivery. The part sat well in Sylvain's vocal range, and his inflections helped to bring out the wonders he was narrating clearly.  Seated before the work opened, Sylvan was surrounded by other cast members, whose presence suggested a crowd enraptured by a storyteller, which set the scene for the beginning  of the story. At times the narrator dropped out of the action for a while, but Sylvain re-entered unobtrusively, never relying on histrionics to present his text. The narrator must present whole sections of story in the same way that Gurnemanz must relate whole portions of Parsifal. Occasionally though, the orchestra drowned our some of Sylvan's lines, although this was remedied by the titles projected above the stage. Having said this, when the staging required Sylvain to move to the right-hand side of the stage in the second act, his voice was noticeably clearer, as though he had found a more lively space in the theater.

As Kumudha, Natasha Jouhl matched the role  which  approximates that of the narrator in sheer stage presence, very well.  A modern-age Daphne, Kumudha must convey a range of emotions from the impassioned prayers for the gods to assist her mother, through the ecstasy of finding her prayers answered, and then the consequences of transcending humanity and its inherent risks. Adams gives  Kumudha some florid lines requiring sustained intensity, and Jouhl contributed her own musical and dramatic sense to them all. Without risking revisionism, she portrayed her character with great dignity, thus paying respect both to the sensibilities of the present without denying the mores of past cultures. Her Kumudha was a respectful daughter and wife, without suggesting subservience. Such a perspective is comprehensible in a work like A Flowering Tree , a modern opera that takes its inspiration from an ancient tale.

Similarly, Noah Stewart's   Prince met the challenge of a character who starts out in the work as a vain and impetuous youth, but later faces the indignity of beggary, before concluding the work as a more balanced person because of his experiences. His tenor voice was well projected and even, with a warm and inviting sound. He made his (sometimes demanding) part seem easy and appealing, conveying the character of the Prince well from the outset and  allowing the poverty of his second-act situation to emerge naturally. Likewise, Stewart made the resolution of the second act work  very in this interactions with Jouhl, which brings the work to its  fitting conclusion.

The chorus is also an important element in A Flowering Tree. It's  an entity that represents the townspeople and  the court, and the vocal ensemble must also be the source from which the solo actors make the work come alive. In this production, the singers responded uniformly not only in rendering the vocal lines, but also in moving the props around the stage and effecting the stagecraft of George Souglides' production. Sometimes stretched across the stage, the chorus retained  accuracy and precision throughout the scenes in which they performed. It was disconcerting to hear them singing in Spanish, even though Adams  prepares the audience for this in the program notes:  the execution of this performance detail in still seemed out of place within the framework  created on stage. Even if Spanish is used because  Adams regards it as the second language of the United States, this element does not necessarily support the text of A Flowering Tree as it does in  Doctor Atomic, which is set in the American Southwest. This is a minor quibble  however and  is perhaps, best taken in the context of the score, not this particular production.

All in all, both the vocal and dramatic elements of the work benefited from the Souglides' efficient staging in which  the use of the storyteller as a stage presence provided an anchoring point, along with the members of the ensemble. The challenge of depicting a woman transformed into a tree was addressed in several ways, which worked well in creating an image that remained connected with a human being. While modern technology and stagecraft could have weighed in with special effects, the efficacy of ropes and other familiar objects made great sense in the same way that the use of paper cut-outs gave shape to elephants or in some cases framed scenes which in turn, were as effeictive as the puppets  used to excellent effect in the Act II scene involving the jealous princess. These elements, along with the lighting, contributed much in giving the opera its physical shape. This  is an accessible work that should appeal to those familiar with Adams' music and  also intrigue those who have yet to discover it.

James L. Zychowicz

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