A Flowering Tree

At the Mostly Mozart Festival on Thursday, August 13.

This is the hardest thing to write about: the thing that surprises you, envelops you. You sit rapt with a straight back and clasped hands, and afterward you sigh with mingled happiness and regret, because it is so beautiful and because it is over and because you will never experience it new again.

When I went home after the performance, I babbled happily to Sean (who had to work late and couldn’t join me) about John Adams’s new opera, and when I paused to draw breath, he smiled and said, “You’re using lovely again.” I felt somewhat abashed. Lovely is my gushiest word, and I often overuse it, but it was appropriate in this case. To me, lovely goes beyond beautiful. It has a goodness about it, a special quality that draws me out at my most earnest. If I use lovely, it is only because, well, I love it.

Unlike Adams’s previous operas, such as Doctor Atomic, based on grim historical events, A Flowering Tree sets a simple folk story from India. A poor girl named Kamudha discovers the ability to turn herself into a beautiful, budding tree. A neighboring prince witnesses the transformation and marries her so that he can observe her magic up close, but his jealous sister tricks and abuses the girl, trapping her mid-transformation. Without his wife the prince goes into mourning, wandering the land as an ascetic, and the now hideously deformed Kamudha is taken in by traveling minstrels who hear her still angelic voice. Eventually the pair ends up at the distant town where the prince’s sister now lives. She recognizes them both, repents her actions, and brings them back together, and the prince restores Kamudha to her human body.

The tale is intimate, not epic, and Adams and director Peter Sellars, who collaborated on the libretto, bring it to life with delicacy, using a simple stage, a mere three soloists, and a chorus. The orchestra is comparatively large—with an extensive, diverse percussion section—but Adams only rarely employs it at full force, instead treating it more like a chamber ensemble, singling out a few instruments at a time to create a spare, shimmery texture.

Adams spins striking, flexible melodies and sets text with true artistry. The three talented soloists—Jessica Rivera as Kamudha, Russell Thomas as the prince, and Sanford Sylvan as the narrator—all have warmly expressive voices, and the choir, Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, has the rich unified sound of a fourth soloist. I would have adored the music alone.

But the genius of A Flowering Tree is that it is not music alone. The soloists are joined by three classical Javanese dancer-choreographers—Astri Kusuma Wardani, Eko Supriyanto, and Rusini Sidi—whose lavishly elegant movements, in partnership with Adams’s music, create a virtually synesthetic experience.

For much of the opera, Wardani shadows Rivera and Supriyanto shadows Thomas, and they create Kamudha and the prince in tandem. At first, the conceit feels awkward, but once you grow accustomed to its emotional logic, you see only the exquisite artistry of the pairings. Kamudha’s first transformation, with the strings resonating and Wardani’s wrists and arms bending and stretching ever upward, is nothing short of luminous. The ecstatic love song that concludes the first act, with Rivera and Thomas’s voices wrapping around each other and Wardani and Supriyanto’s limbs entwining, is sensually transcendental—both earthy and heavenly and so beautiful that it brought me to tears.

As silly as that might sound, I don’t mean it hyperbolically. When I first read the story in my program, it meant little to me, but as created by Adams and the musicians and dancers, A Flowering Tree is so lushly imagined, so alluring, so lovely that I had to cry. I was acutely conscious of the transience of the enterprise. In all likelihood, I will never again experience this opera in all its multidisciplined glory, if at all. The arcing tunes, the lush harmonies, the dancers’ pliable bodies moving so perfectly with the music that I couldn’t imagine one existing before the other—they exist now only in memory. Yet however fleeting—a tapestry of nature’s first golden green—the experience of the opera still lingers inside me, too precious to completely fade away.

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