John Adams’ 2006 opera “A Flowering Tree,” given a semi-staged performance on Thursday by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, is simply stunning, a worthy addition to the Adams canon and likely the most satisfying evening of the ASO’s season.
Adams and Peter Sellars, who wrote the libretto together, have taken an ancient South Indian folk tale about a woman who transforms herself into a tree and transformed it into a magical meditation on love, redemption and -- that word again -- transformation.
“Tree” was first performed in Vienna as part of Mozart’s 250th birthday celebration, and it mirrors the young lovers’ trials of his “The Magic Flute.” Like “Flute,” the linear story is compelling but deceptively simple, offering allegorical adventures for the cerebral (in Sanskrit, “flowering” also refers to menstruation) but still satisfying for those who prefer to stick with the basics and focus on the score.
And what a score! Those expecting the dense and sometimes explosive sound world of Adams’ “Doctor Atomic,” performed by the ASO in 2008, will find in “Tree” a composer who has shifted gears and is exploring, perhaps for the first time, a gently nuanced, poetic and luminous score, with a complex rhythmic underpinning, opening up into radiance at the end. Most of this happens in the orchestra, while the vocal roles are primarily declamatory. The chorus is used primarily to represent the village people or the court. Oddly, the chorus sings in Spanish, which Adams has tried to explain by suggesting this is the second language of the U.S. and one with which he is comfortable. This doesn’t make much sense, but no great damage is done.
It’s easy to see how this opera appealed to ASO music director Robert Spano, who conducted, as it plays to many of the orchestra’s strengths -- the great chorus and strong percussion section, for example -- while allowing him to indulge his dual passions for new music and for opera. And the work calls for the singers' voices to be amplified, solving one of the major problems at vocally cruel Symphony Hall. Still, it was not clear on paper that this would work well, as “Tree” does seem to demand a strong visual element, and prior productions have used dancers extensively. In fact, talks were held between the orchestra and the Atlanta Opera about collaborating on this project, an exciting idea that eventually fell apart for lack of money.
Technology, however, came to the rescue. James Alexander, who directed the production, joined forces with Clark, an Alpharetta-based technology firm, to provide something called Symphony V.0, which merged live video projections of the singers into a projected tapestry whose shadow play evoked the work's locale.
Amazingly, we got the same strong cast as the Vienna premiere. In the intervening years, bass-baritone Eric Owens has become something of a phenomenon. As Dennis Hanthorn, general director of the Atlanta Opera, commented at intermission, he is the operatic equivalent of a rock star. In addition to fine diction and beautiful tone, he has the ability to suggest the deepest emotion using only his expressive face and the slightest body gestures. He brought great tenderness to the role of Storyteller. Jessica Rivera’s clear soprano voice soared easily over a demanding range in the role of Kumudha, the peasant girl whose magic gift leads her to a love affair with the Prince, sung ably here by Atlanta tenor Russell Thomas.
An opera orchestra is normally in a pit, yet for this performance it was nice to have the musicians in full view as they were often the stars, with challenging bits for everyone. Spano conducted deftly, and the chorus was in its glory.
The opera will be performed again Saturday evening.
"A Flowering Tree" repeats at 8 p.m. June 9. $21-$79. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree Str., Atlanta. 404-733-5000. www.atlantasymphony.org.
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