Peter Sellars’ New Crowned Hope Festival, named after Mozart’s Masonic lodge, enjoys a spectacular launch with the world premiere of “A Flowering Tree,” the fourth opera from John Adams, America’s foremost classical composer.
“A Flowering Tree” marks another milestone in Adams’ amazing, nonstop growth: his first stage work not based on contemporary events (he previously addressed Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake and J. Robert Oppenheimer’s 1945 “trinity” test of the first atomic bomb). In the spirit of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” co-librettists Adams and Sellars take as dramatic inspiration a 2,000-year-old tale of enlightenment through personal sacrifice, handed down through India’s Kannada language.
Poor Kumudha evokes a sacred ritual, transforms into a tree and sells the fragrant flowers at market to augment her withered mother’s income. The transformation is witnessed by a Prince who falls in love with Kumudha. He sends for her and orders their marriage.
After uneventful nights in the wedding bed, the Prince confesses his obsession with Kumudha’s magic powers. With his assistance, she performs the ceremony and the pair celebrate nights of connubial bliss on a bed of blossoms.
Tricked by the Prince’s jealous sister, Kumudha performs the transformation for a group of courtiers, who destroy her branches and depart before the ceremony is completed. Kumudha is left a gnarled, half-human stump without arms or legs. Plucked from the gutters, she is exploited by itinerant minstrels as a freak who sings sad songs.
Despondent over Kumudha’s disappearance, the Prince becomes a mute, homeless beggar and wanders to a far-off kingdom where his sister is now queen. The queen orders Kumudha bathed, scented and wrapped in lustrous fabrics to distract the Prince with her songs. The two broken beings recognize each other, the Prince completes the ceremony and both are made whole again though the power of true love.
If that’s a bit too idealistic, innocent and triumphant for you (as it has been for many in the Austrian, German and American press): Get over it! This is the most unabashedly romantic, gloriously tonal score to hit the opera scene in many years.
Sellars’ direction is understated. The Technicolor traditional Indian costumes by Gabriel Berry — rich brocades and paisleys — for principals, chorus and orchestra (even Adams, who conducts these premiere perfs) dominate the evening, along with George Tyspin’s minimal, evocative, saffron-hued scenery.
The visuals are abetted by the ever-present choir from the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, which passionately delivers the opera’s descriptive passages in Spanish.
Kumudha, her Prince and the omnipresent Storyteller are physically manifested by mesmerizing Javanese dancers Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto and Astri Kusama Wardani, respectively, who inform their singing counterparts’ every word with elegant, original choreography.
As for the singers, Jessica Rivera is reedy, gorgeous and sensitive as Kumudha; Russell Thomas makes a sweet, heroic prince; and Eric Owens is a mesmerizing, multifaceted Storyteller.
And to think Adams once was considered a minimalist! He has far outgrown the self-imposed strictures of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, never ceasing to experiment and incorporate new styles, from the evocative, spacey electronics of “Dharma at Big Sur” to his ultra-sensitive, pensive take on Sept. 11, “On the Transmigration of Souls,” for which he won a Pulitzer. The writing in “A Flowering Tree” is his most lush and erotic to date.
One of the more highly anticipated operatic events in recent years, the work soon will travel to Berlin, London, Amsterdam, San Francisco and New York.