Notes and Editorial Reviews
Adams: A Flowering Tree. Jessica Rivera, soprano, Russell Thomas, tenor, Eric Owens, bass-baritone; Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, London Symphony Orchestra, John Adams, conductor. Martin Sauer, producer; Tobias Lehmann, engineer. Nonesuch 327100 [2 CDs].
A Flowering Tree – with libretto by the composer and longtime collaborator Peter Sellars, adapted from ancient Indian poetry and folk tales in translations by A.K. Rmanujan – was commissioned by a consortium led by Sellars’ New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna, comprising, in addition to it, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, the Barbican Centre, Lincoln Center, and the Berlin Philharmonic. The sixth opera on which Adams and Sellars have collaborated (going back to Nixon
in China), it received its first performance in November 2006 at the New Crowned Hope Festival – which, it’s important to note, takes its name from that of the Masonic lodge to which Mozart belonged during his final years in Vienna.
One of a number of works commissioned by the festival for the 250th anniversary year of Mozart’s birth, A Flowering Tree was intended as a response to Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It shares with that wonderful work a plot that hinges on magical transformations and ultimately celebrates the redeeming power of love. Musically, like The Magic Flute, it is a real gem. It only takes a few moments of listening to realize that A Flowering Tree is the work of great composer who is the master of his technique, rather than its slave. The work’s very opening – on a delicate, vibrant string ostinato – conveys the kind of purity one finds in late Sibelius…and late Mozart…and that henceforth will be associated with Adams too. Using a standard orchestra, with the very effective addition of solo parts for soprano and alto recorder and lots of percussion, the composer creates a scintillant sound-world that brings the story to life – conveying its fairy tale qualities but also something deeper, a score whose gentleness charms, and whose frequent cross-rhythms and syncopations hint at more violent underlying passions. As conductor, Adams shapes a reading that has bite, a pleasing freshness, and great tenderness.
There are only three solo roles in the opera: The Storyteller, The Prince, and the peasant girl Kumudha, who turns into the flowering tree of the story’s title. All three principals are excellent, particularly Jessica Rivera (Kumudha) and Eric Owens (The Storyteller), both veterans of Doctor Atomic. The other important “voice” is that of the chorus, which sings in Spanish and takes on multiple roles, sometimes proclaiming in the voice of the people, sometimes as ancillary characters. The use of a different language reminds us of the story’s exotic origins, and, one could argue, expands the composer’s expressive palette.
The recording, made at the Barbican Centre in August 2007, is very atmospheric. One feels as if one is in the theater, a few rows from the stage; voices and orchestra are very clearly imaged and naturally present, with a palpable sense of space around them. One hears everything, yet it all coheres very naturally. Still, it appears Nonesuch rushed the production of this set. In the version I received for review, the booklet was poorly edited (the central figures in Mozart’s Magic Flute are Tamino and Pamina, not “Tamina and Pamino”) and half of the libretto was missing. Also, there were several moments in the opera’s first act where the stereo dropped out, yielding dead-center mono. Whether this was an engineering blunder or a production glitch it’s impossible to say.
– Ted Libbey, author of
The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection. Read less
Works on This Recording
A Flowering Tree by John Adams
Eric Owens (Baritone),
Jessica Rivera (Soprano),
Russell Thomas (Tenor)
London Symphony Orchestra,
Schola Cantorum De Venezuela
Period: 20th Century
Written: 2006; USA
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