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May 16, 2008

Adams, Sellars see opera’s simple side

What better way to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth than with an opera based on an Indian folktale? If the question seems perverse, one should turn to the oeuvre of composer John Adams, whose latest creation, A Flowering Tree, opened Wednesday night at the Chicago Opera Theater. Adams and collaborator Peter Sellars are best known for their operas covering such subjects as the making of the A-bomb (Dr. Atomic), the Palestinian Liberation Army hijacking of an airliner (Death of Klinghoffer), and Nixon in China (Nixon in China). Not the usual stuff of arias.

What makes A Flowering Tree rather surprising is how far Adams and Sellars have strayed from their past works. The opera is neither topical nor overtly political. Instead, Adams and Sellars adapt a thousand-year-old tale to the opera, casting aside political relevance in favor of simplicity, color, and beauty. The results are, in a word, enchanting.

A Flowering Tree pays homage to Mozart because Adams was inspired by The Magic Flute. Adams says that Mozart treats the same themes as the folktale, namely youth and developing moral sensibility.

A Flowering Tree tells the story of the poor and beautiful young girl Kumudha, who has the power to transform herself into a flowering tree. Kumudha enlists her older sister to help with the transformation so they can earn money to lessen the toils of the girls’ mother. The sister pours a pitcher of water on Kumudha, transforming her into, a tree and then collects the tree’s flowers for the sisters to sell outside the nearby royal palace. By pouring a second pitcher of water on Kumudha, the sister can return her to her human form.

The beautiful flowers sold by these peasant girls attract the attention of the king’s son, who one day follows them home to find the source of the flowers. Hiding, he witnesses Kumudha’s transformation and immediately falls in love with her. When the king learns of his son’s passion, he summons Kumudha’s aging mother and demands Kumudha’s hand in marriage for his son.

The two are married, and after Kumudha realizes that the prince knows her power and recovers from her shame with this discovery, she performs the transformation for him. It becomes a ritual for them, and the two enjoy a state of marital bliss. However, one of the prince’s sisters, jealous of Kumudha’s beauty, spies on her and also discovers her secret. Tricking Kumudha into coming to the forest with her, she forces her to transform but fails to fully return Kumudha to human form. The princess is left deformed—half tree, half human.

Too ashamed to reveal her identity, she becomes a beggar and is carried by other beggars from town to town. The heartbroken prince also takes to wandering. Ultimately the two are reunited, and upon recognizing his wife’s identity, the prince performs the transformation ritual, making her whole.

The simplicity of the story lends itself well to an opera and is matched beautifully by George Souglides’s spare but nonetheless enrapturing set design. The minimal use of set pieces contrasts with ornate costumes and powerful use of lighting to great effect. Columns of light draw attention to different characters, and the shades of the light transform with the mood of each scene. While the costumes are simple for the most part, the exceptions are rather extraordinary. To portray Kumudha’s transformations into a tree, ropes are deployed brilliantly, in one scene crisscrossing the length of the stage. The royal family’s costumes also depart from the overall simplicity, glittering with beadwork and crowned with enormous masks.

The music is also resplendent. Sung in English and Spanish, the libretto is at once lush and highly accessible, made even more so by perfectly timed and easily readable subtitles. While Kumudha and the prince admirably execute their roles, they are outshone by the rich baritone of the narrator. The Spanish-language ensemble also dazzles, their every song and dance infusing the opera with vim and excitement.

And the dancing—whimsical, fresh, and bursting with vivacity—provides the final touch in making A Flowering Tree truly intoxicating.