Adams/Sellars “Tree” blossoms sublimely at SFS

True, the young lovers of “The Magic Flute” sometimes emerge from realistic stagings of
Mozart’s last opera dripping and singed around the edges, but their trials are nonetheless
symbolic. And, furthermore, they follow the traditional pattern of boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl
with the two living happily ever after.

Kumudha and her Prince — they come from a 2000-year-old South India folk tale — invert the
process; they start out blissfully together, but their happiness is soon shattered by their imperfect

There is good reason to draw parallels between the two operas, for Sellars asked Adams to
compose a score for Vienna’s 2006 New Crowned Hope Festival. Sellars, curator of the program,
sought new works from a cross-section of artistic genres sparked by “a conversation with the
luminous music of Mozart’s final year.”

(New Crowned Hope was the name of the Masonic lodge to which Mozart belonged in Vienna.)

Adams immediately chose “Magic Flute” as his point of departure, stressing, however, that “the
connection is more one of spirit than of substance,” yet pointing out that “both operas share a
central theme of youth, the evolution of moral consciousness, transformation — both physical
and spiritual — and magic.”

And like the “Flute,” “Tree” too is essentially a fairy tale, which the Storyteller begins:
“Children, I want to tell you a story.”

It is a story excitingly told through the intense interaction of text, music and dance that makes it a
unique achievement of music theater.

Music theater?

Yes, for the collective concept avoids the question of whether “Tree” is actually an opera.
Scholars will argue the point, stressing — after all — that the three San Francisco performances
of the work were given by the Symphony in Davies Hall, not across the street in the War
Memorial Opera House.

And, indeed, ‘Tree’ has something of an oratorio about it, with the Storyteller functioning much
as does the Evangelist in the Passions of J. S. Bach.

But why worry about the label for a work so endlessly moving?

“Tree” calls for only three singers — Kumudha, the Prince and the Storyteller, who are seconded
by a trio of dancers, Doppelgänger, as it were, who bring animation to the narrative and amplify
the inner emotions of the singers.

Vocalists in San Francisco — as in Vienna and Berlin — were soprano Jessica Rivera, stellar as
Nuria in Osvaldo Golojov’s “Ainadamar” at the Santa Fe Opera in 2005, tenor Russell Thomas
and bass Eric Owens. All three are young artists of promise, distinguished by their thorough
command of this score and their obvious commitment to it.

The Javanese dancers — Rusini Sidi, Eka Supriyanto and Astri Kusuma Wardani — were also
responsible for the choreography for this semi-staged production.

Action was confined to three overlapping ovals that shared the Davies stage with the orchestra
and to a smaller space above and to the left of the ensemble. The simplicity of the staging
complemented the leanness of Adams’ score and of the libretto. Written by Sellars and the
composer, the text runs a mere 9 pages in the SFS program book.

The overwhelming quality of the work is its beauty, a word that one uses with hesitation in
talking about new music. Too often suggests the warmed-up Brahms of the now largely forgotten
New Romanticism of a few decades ago or the embarrassed hovering at the edge of dissonance
where many modernists dwell, fearful of losing their audience should they move one step further
from the triad.

Adams’ embrace of tonality is unashamed and without apology, for it comes from the heart; this
— like its story — is music with a soul.

And, yes, Adams’ early minimalism (he turned 60 in February) is still present, but only as a
subtext in a score, in which craftsmanship and accessibility are remarkably balanced.

For “Tree” too, one might say, marks a transformation in the career of this, America’s
most-performed living composer. Here it is the lyricism of long sustained lines that dominates;
rhythmic figures, although subtle, are never complex.

The work is through-composed — without big arias or “numbers” — and this accounts for its
easy and seamless flow.

“Tree,” which runs 2.5 hours with a single intermission, is clearly a major work. It centers on
four scenes of transformation, for — recalling Richard Strauss’ Daphne — Kumuhda is able to
change herself into a tree, which she does to escape the recurrent miseries of her life.

For these scenes, the backbone of ‘Tree,” Adams has written music that is truly transcendent —
rich in its sonorities and textures and mesmerizing in communicating the emotional impact of the

Like the “Sea Interludes” in Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” these sections of the score will no doubt
become an orchestral suite.

Essential to the work is the chorus, which Adams says should number at least 40 singers. The
SFS gave him more than twice that number, superbly rehearsed by David J. Xiques, the brightly
dressed ensemble was a major participant in the drama at hand.

“Tree” is scored for a symphonic ensemble of medium size with a massive percussion battery.

At a pre-performance interview Sellars characterized the work as a masterpiece of “joyful
transformation,” which sums up its essence and its impact.

Kumuhda and her Prince find each other and their love again at, but only after a journey through
pain and adversity, and it is this honesty about life and the blows that it deals that account for the
authenticity of “Tree.”

Like the last two of Mozart’s 40 symphonies — the pensive D Minor and the exuberant
“:Jupiter” — this is the other side of the coin explored by Adams and Sellars in their 2005
“Doctor Atomic,” the tale of physicist Robert J. Oppenheimer’s Faustian flirtation with the force
of infinite destruction.

Indeed, Sellar’s recently referred to the earlier opera as ‘Adams’ ‘Götterdämmerung.”

“A Flowering Tree” is a co-commission of the San Francisco Symphony, Vienna’s New
Crowned Hope Festival, the Berlin Philharmonic, London’s Barbicon Centre and the Lincoln
Center for the Performing Arts in New York. The composer conducted the Viennese premiere;
Simon Rattle was on the podium for the Berlin performance.

And, by the way, “Doctor Atomic” will be on stage at Chicago Lyric Opera between December
14, 2007 and January 19, 2008.

Wes Blomster

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product_title=Above: John Adams