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John Adams A Flowering Tree Review

Album. Released 2008.  

BBC Review

A magical and mysterious moral fable.

Michael Quinn 2008

Commissioned to mark the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth and first heard in Vienna in late 2006, A Flowering Tree has already been seen and heard in Berlin, San Francisco and, last August, in London's Barbican Hall, from where this live recording hails.

Based on a southern Indian folk tale, it tells the story of Kumudha, a young girl who can magically transform herself at will into a tree so that she can sell its blossoms to support her old and infirm mother. But when she falls in love with a handsome prince and marries him, his jealous sister attacks and mutilates her while she is transformed, rendering her part human, part tree until her husband's love heals and restores her. Taking its thematic inspiration from The Magic Flute, A Flowering Tree reunites Adams with his longtime collaborator, Peter Sellars, both of whom contributed to the libretto.

Arriving so soon after the composer’s searing portrait of Robert Oppenheimer, Doctor Atomic, A Flowering Tree feels like a calculated and canny response to its predecessor's Faustian incandescence. There's transformation here, certainly, but it has none of the apocalyptic fury and un-regarding vehemence threatened by nuclear fission.

Whether A Flowering Tree qualifies as an opera is moot. In performance it is operatic in scale, but in the dark-hued edges of Adams's otherwise characteristically high-edged tessitura it communicates with a forceful, chamber-like intensity that compels the attention.

Orchestral textures are light, sun-dappled and diaphanous and shot through with graceful and telling detail: broad-beamed brass that exotically glints and sparkles like stars in the night sky, percussion that ambles with elephantine deliberateness, woodwinds that dance and dart on warm thermals, tremulous strings that shimmer and slice in luxuriant abundance, and, most affecting of all, the simple sincerity of recorders, fragile and vulnerable but resolute and enduing. And in all of which, Adams finds moments of sublimely beautiful repose when his trademark rhythmic restlessness is not otherwise motoring the narrative along.

As the arboreally-challenged Kumudha, soprano Jessica Rivera offers a solid and ravishingly sung foundation, never more human and compelling than when she is transformed, and she clearly relishes the gorgeous sonorities Adams provides her with. Tenor Russell Thomas is a sensitive, supple and three-dimensional Prince, with bass-baritone Eric Owens carefully picking his way through the role of Storyteller to provide a reassuring conduit into this magical and mysterious moral fable.

Solid contributions, too, from the young Venezuelan choir of the Schola Cantorum Caracas, whose delivery of the Spanish-sung choruses carries the same impressively articulate impact one now associates with their orchestral peers. Adams conducts the London Symphony Orchestra with lightly-worn authority, making much of the moments of high drama and of individual intimacy.

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