The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concludes its 2011-12 season this week with two performances of John Adams’ opera “A Flowering Tree.” The two-act, two-hour production is semi-staged in the ASO’s increasingly familiar “theater of a concert” format.
“A Flowering Tree,” commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, premiered in 2006 in Vienna. Adams used Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” as a point of departure in search for inspiration and finally landed upon a South Indian folk tale, specifically the English translation of “A Flowering Tree” by A.K. Ramanujan. The libretto, co-authored by Adams and Peter Sellars, differs in a few significant respects from Ramanujan’s telling, but the story’s roots in oral tradition foster fresh variation.
Adams pares down his cast to three principal solo singers, portrayed in this performance by the original cast members: soprano Jessica Rivera as Kumudha, tenor Russell Thomas as the Prince and bass-baritone Eric Owens as the Narrator. The ASO Chorus, en ensemble, portrays everyone else.
One cannot overemphasize that this Kannada-language folk story is one traditionally told by women. Its mythology and symbolism is feminine and feminist. At its core, South Indian culture and philosophy celebrates the universe through the beauty of the body and the power of female creativity, sexuality and maternity, and the strong connection between woman and nature. Curiously, Adams and Sellars chose to cast the Narrator as male.
The story: a poor female field laborer lives with her two daughters. The younger, Kumudha, wishes to help her mother. Through secret magic ritual, she transforms into a flowering tree whose flowers are sold by the sisters in front of the King’s palace, unbeknownst to the mother.
The Prince spies one of the transformations, arousing his desire. He tells the King, who orders Kumudha delivered to the palace. The confused mother beats her daughters for what she imagines is a shameful occurrence, until the truth is told. The Prince marries Kumudha, but he does not touch her until after she transforms into a tree for him.
The Prince’s sister learns the secret. While the Prince is gone hunting, she demands that Kumudha transform for her and her friends. They treat Kumudha roughly and fail to complete the ritual, leaving her half-transformed — part human and part tree, a helpless chimera with no hands or feet. She crawls into a gutter and is found by traveling minstrels, who carry her off.
The Prince returns and, believing that Kumudha left him due to his selfishness and arrogance, becomes a despondent, aimlessly wandering beggar. Both wind up in the city where the Prince’s sister has now married and become a queen. She recognizes her brother but is unable to cure his despair until she reunites him with Kumudha, whereupon the Prince restores her to human form.
The singing was superb. Rivera was luminous as Kumudha, Thomas well conveyed the Prince’s breakdown from arrogance to disarray to the joy of reconciliation, and Owens as the Narrator was persuasive and affecting. James Alexander’s spare stage direction allowed the cast of three at times to touch either conductor Robert Spano or the safety rail of the podium, breaking any invisible theatrical wall between singers and orchestra.
In addition to a walkway through the middle of the orchestra, the production’s set involves much compelling digital imagery projected above and behind the chorus. Live video of the soloists, shot from a camera under the chorus risers, was effectively mixed in, especially when the live image of Rivera was replaced by a still that morphed into a tree.
Most of the special effects were delightful and cohesive. Digital emulation of Wayang shadow puppetry recalled the early-20th-century animations of Lotte Reiniger, but with a colorful 21st-century supersharpness. The first act scene where the mother beats her daughters went on too long, and a large male Narrator mimicking her slaps just didn’t feel right, though coordinated with punctuations in the music.
The difficult Kechak chorus of minstrels in the second act also felt too long. Both the chorus and orchestra seemed to struggle with it. And a stark, static image of the moon by itself — projected dead center like a relentless Eye of God — became annoying after a while.
The opera visually closed with the tree and dispersed its petals to the audience, in addition to large pink and white confetti tossed into the air by the chorus onstage and snowing down from the balconies upon the audience. Overall, the ASO staged a winning production.
The final performance of “A Flowering Tree” will take place tonight in Symphony Hall.