Beautiful 'Tree' bears fruit despite ill-suited story line
Adams recaptures artistry but not drama, of 'Nixon'
Tuesday, May 20, and Thursday, May 22, at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, May 25 at 3 p.m.
Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 East Randolph, Chicago
BY ANDREW PATNER
You have to give big props to Chicago Opera Theater, the little company that could, can, and does.
Its remarkable coup in presenting the long overdue Chicago premiere of John Adams's landmark Nixon in China two years ago so impressed the composer that intrepid COT general director Brian Dickie secured the U.S. stage premiere of Adams's most recent theatrical work, A Flowering Tree, while the ink on the late 2006 score was barely dry. Adams even volunteered to conduct the first two performances this week himself.
Commissioned by Vienna's one-off "New Crowned Hope" Mozart's 250th birthday festival and its director, longtome Adams colllaborator Peter Sellars, Tree had the eyes and ears of the world on it. Following such large-scale successes as Nixon and Doctor Atomic, America's most performed living composer was turning away from political and dark themes to focus on the beauty and innocence of an ancient South Indian folk tale.
With a concert performance in San Francisco behind it and stagings imminenent in New York and Amsterdam, COT's annual May season window meant Tree would have a full American bloom first in Chicago.
As would be expected from this superb craftsman (at left) unafraid -- even proud -- to write "accessibly" in the 21st century, Tree delivered on the musical side Wednesday night at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. The composer-conductor, 61, leading an orchestra of almost 60, gave us another score that involves the listener deeply and holds frequent moments and long passages of warmth, longing, and wonder. (Joana Carneiro, assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will lead the last three performances.)
At the work's Vienna premiere, The New Yorker's Alex Ross, one of Adams's most impassioned and thoughtful advocates, heard Sibelius in a piece he regards as unlike anything the composer has writen before. I heard more Janacek -- and a lot of previous Adams. But we would probably agree that the music is the chief strength of this new work. An orchestral suite or other version for the concert hall would certainly be a welcome addition to the Adams catalogue.
But even the sort of top-flight production that has become a COT trademark, and the superb work of Adams and assistant conductor and chorus master Stephen Hargreaves, cannot make up for the fact that Tree is not an opera and that its story, twice removed and adapted into English, has nothing to make it work dramatically for two one-hour acts. There is also more than a little West Coast multiculturalism for multiculti's sake here -- the choruses for example, are in Spanish, and the dancing has Southeast Asian influences; the cast, both here and in Vienna, is intentionally multiracial. More than hastening world peace, this big-heartedness just confuses the audience.
Initially adapted into English by the late South Indian poet and University of Chicago folklorist A. K. Ramanujan, Tree tells the story of a young girl, Kumadha, who somehow knows that she can turn herself into a flowering tree -- and back again. At first she uses this power, which requires a confederate and two pitchers of water, to create flowers that she and her sister can sell to ease the difficult life of their hard-working mother. It also serves, unexpectedly to the girl, to gain the interest of a handsome and wealthy prince who takes her for his bride. Jealousy at the court leads to her being caught mid-transformation one day, and, reduced to a crippled, even freakish, state, she becomes separated from her lover and family.
Even Richard Strauss was defeated dramaturgically when he used a simliar story in his opera Daphne. But there is something more problematic going on here in theatrical -- or non-theatrical -- terms: a folk tale is rich in its own way, it does not by its nature lead to a libretto, with its shades of character, plot development, and dialogue in one form or another. And when creators of Western art strive so visbly hard to enter -- rather than to be inspired by -- Eastern culture in search of greater "simplicity" or "naivete," as Adams has here, they become both repetitive and condescending.
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 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's score on stage with nine gifted dancers.
But too often British soprano Natasha Jouhl as Kumadha and American tenor Noel Stewart as the Prince have to stand on stage trying to embody single emotions in stillness. And veteran baritone Sanford Sylvan (left) as the Storyteller becomes a sort of narrating prop after a while.
One should attend this transitional Adams work, but perhaps by listening to one act and watching the stage in the other. There are two beautiful streams of artistic creation going on here, but they never flower together as a single tree.