"A Flowering Tree" Chicago Opera Theater


'Flowering' magical
Chicago Opera premiere weaves beautiful magic
By Scott C. Morgan
Published: 5/16/2008

Chicago Opera Theater's "A Flowering Tree" elegantly conjures up all sorts of storytelling magic for an ancient tale of love and redemption. This Midwest premiere is not only a creative triumph, but an artistic coup for COT (the first opera company to present "A Flowering Tree" outside of semi-staged concert hall performances).

Co-written by American composer John Adams and co-librettist Peter Sellars in 2006, "A Flowering Tree" is based on a South-Indian folk tale and other poetry translated by late University of Chicago scholar Attipat Krishnaswami Ramanujan. It's a very accessible departure for Adams, whose previous operas "Nixon in China," "The Death of Klinghoffer" and "Doctor Atomic" explored weightier issues.

"A Flowering Tree" focuses on pious peasant girl Kumudha (soprano Natasha Jouhl), who has the ability to transform herself into a flowering tree so she and her sister can sell the blossoms. Things get complicated when the Prince (tenor Noah Stewart) spies Kumudha's transformation and demands she become his bride.

The two fall deeply in love, but become separated when the Prince's jealous sister interferes with one of Kumudha's metamorphoses.

Adams and Sellars rely primarily upon narration to drive the tale along, be it from an omniscient Storyteller (baritone Sanford Sylvan) or from the leading couple who frequently sing in the third-person.

This is a tad emotionally distancing, but it provides director Nicola Raab and choreographer Renato Zanella lots of fanciful opportunities to illustrate Adams' shimmering and propulsive score (Adams himself conducted on opening night; Joana Carneiro conducts the final three performances).

Raab emphasizes the imagination of both the Storyteller and his circle of listeners which include dancers (who step out to take on character roles) and singers (who also express dialogue and inner thoughts).

Zanella's modern choreography is inflected by the arched poses of classical Indian dance (Zanella's conciliation dance for Kumudha's mother is particularly affecting).

Things were a bit shakier vocally. It took a while for Sylvan to get warmed up and sometimes he audibly dropped out (the production is amplified, so I'm uncertain if it was a lyric blunder or a sound booth problem).

Stewart's tenor voice has a lovely baritone sheen to it, which didn't initially scale the high tessitura in Adams' vocal writing for the Prince (it could have been opening night jitters since Stewart sounded fine later on). Coming off best was the golden soprano of Jouhl, who vocally soared even when she spent most of the second act bound and wriggling about.

Lighting designer Aaron Black saturates the largely bare stage with deep primary colors, allowing the period costumes and creative set pieces of designer George Souglides to pop out. Souglides' use of ropes for a web of branches was clever, as was a series of cutouts suggesting shantytowns and a metaphorically marauding elephant.

Though some of the orchestral interludes may wear out their welcome in forwarding the plot, "A Flowering Tree" grows on you overall as an entrancing tale of love and imagination. Once again, COT proves itself to be an innovative and essential part of Chicago's operatic and artistic landscape.

Beautiful 'Tree' bears fruit despite ill-suited story line
OPERA | Adams recaptures artistry but not drama of 'Nixon'
May 16, 2008
by Andrew Patner

....None of this means that there are not beautiful, richly colored stage pictures at the hands of director Nicola Raab, whose "Beatrice and Benedict" last season for COT was also lovely to look at, and set and costume designer George Souglides. The transformation scenes are at first hypnotic visual poetry. And choreographer Renato Zanella has found wonderful ways to animate Adams' score onstage with nine gifted dancers.....


John Adams conducts his brilliant 'Tree' at Harris Theatre
John Adams conducts work based on Indian tale
By John von Rhein
May 17, 2008

Chicago Opera Theater isn't billing it as such, but the Midwest premiere of "A Flowering Tree," now delighting audiences at the Harris Music and Dance Theater, is the first fully staged production of composer John Adams' latest collaboration with co-librettist Peter Sellars to be given in the U.S. The American premiere, in San Francisco in March 2007, was a semi-staged concert performance.

With "A Flowering Tree," Adams turns from the contemporary political and moral issues of his earlier operas to the simple beauty of an ancient folk tale from southern India about hope, renewal and the magic of transformation. You could think of his newest opera as the luminous yin to the dark yang of "Doctor Atomic," which Lyric Opera mounted last winter.

"A Flowering Tree" also has a cautionary message to impart, but it does so as a gentle fantasy rather than as a dense docudrama. Its fairy tale blend of light and shadow is conveyed directly, without a jot of postmodernist irony. If parallels with Mozart's "The Magic Flute" suggest themselves, that's very much Adams' intention: He in fact wrote the work for a 2006 festival in Vienna celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth.

The story has a local link. Adams and Sellars drew on an English translation of an ancient tale in the native Kannada language of the Indian poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan, who unearthed it from an archive at the University of Chicago and translated it into English.

The story line, interwoven with a dozen ancient Tamil love poems, concerns Kumudha, a poor but beautiful young girl who can transform herself into a tree whose blossoms she and her sister sell at a market to support their elderly mother. She and a handsome prince fall in love, are married, then are separated through the vicious actions of the prince's jealous sister. As in all fairy tales, the lovers are happily reunited at the end.

The two-act opera also is about multicultural connections, with a prominent choral part sung in Spanish and an equally prominent dance element that laces Western contemporary choreography with Indian dance motifs. At times the stylized movements of director Nicola Raab's exquisite staging, dressed in simple design elements by George Souglides, brought to mind Japanese Noh theater.

The transformations and other fantasy effects come off brilliantly, notably in the scenes where ensemble members depict an elephant and bird heads using simple pieces of cardboard. Renato Zanella's clean-lined choreography echoes that of Adams and Sellars' regular collaborator, Lucinda Childs.

This show attests to the miracles of stagecraft COT is able to achieve on an austerity budget.

All this understated stage magic is united in Adams' luminous, lyrical, accessible music. The score is alive with pulsing strings, glinting metallic percussion and his trademark jumpy rhythmic patter. That said, the music could stand a few nips and tucks about halfway through the second act when it seems to run out of gas. The score nonetheless is a compelling achievement.

At Wednesday's opening performance, the music was nimbly attended to by the hardworking orchestra and choral ensemble under the composer's vigorous and decisive direction. Adams will conduct one more performance Saturday night before turning over the baton to Joana Carneiro for the remaining three.

The two-hour opera calls for only three singers, and all three performed splendidly. Natasha Jouhl traced the long, radiant lines of Kumudha's music with exactly the "clear and beautiful voice" described in the text.

Noah Stewart sustained the prince's high-lying tenor part with heroic force and lyric tenderness. Sanford Sylvan, a longtime stalwart of the Adams-Sellars stock company, made a clear and engrossing Storyteller. Bravos as well to the 24 choristers and nine dancers.

This is COT doing what it does best, contemporary music theater in its purest form.

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