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John Adams’ “A Flowering Tree” Mesmerizes Art Lovers
BY JYOTI M. MONDY
Photos by JD Scott.
Atlanta, July 2012: Art lovers of Atlanta sat mesmerized watching the two-and-a-quarter-hour long Theater of a Concert series of John Adam’s Mozart-inspired production, “A Flowering Tree”, at the Atlanta Symphony Hall of the Woodruff Arts Center, downtown Atlanta, on June 9.
Set in the backdrop of India and performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and chorus and vocal soloists Jessica Rivera, Eric Owens and Russel Thomas under the direction of Music Director Robert Spano, the two-act opera, the season’s finale of the ASO, was a big hit with the audiences on account of its three dimensional technology and visual effects.
With the staging of this production, ASO became the first orchestra to use multi-dimensional technology using the state of the art high definition capture Techniques. It also witnessed the launching of a new staging experience, Symphony V.O. — a collaboration between Alpheretta based company, Clark and James Alexander, the Director of five Theater of Concert Productions like “Doctor Atomic”, “Madama Butterfly”, “La boheme”, “The Nightingale” and “Bernstein on Broadway”. Music Director Robert Spano of the ASO has, over the last eleven years, invigorated and expanded the Orchestra’s repertoire and elevated the ensemble to a new level of International acclaim. He has a discography of 19 recordings, six of which have been honored with Grammy awards.
Written together by John Adams and Peter Sellars, the libretto story is based on an Indian folk tale and poetry by the American writer of Indian origin, AK Ramanujan. It is a poignant tale of a young couple who endure trials and tribulations before their love emerges triumphant. It tells the story of a beautiful Indian peasant, Kumudha, who discovers that she has the magical power of transforming herself into a flowering tree whose flowers she sells to support her poor mother. A young prince falls in love with Kumudha after seeing her transformation, claims her as his bride but refuses to consummate their marriage until she performs her ritual. As she does, the prince’s jealous sister spies on her and orders Kumudha to perform the transformation for her friends. Midway during her transformation as a half-woman and half-tree, the prince’s sister and her friends vanish, leaving Kumudha in her peculiar state. Kumudha flees and is adopted by a band of travelling minstrels. Unable to find Kumudha, the guilt-stricken prince too becomes a wandering beggar.
Years later the prince stumbles on a distant palace, where his sister is now a Queen. She recognizes him and takes him with her.
Incidentally, the Queens’ maids, mesmerized by the melodious singing of a strange “torso” accompanying the minstrel troupe in the marketplace, tell the Queen about the creature with a beautiful voice. The Queen, who is unaware that this “torso” is the same Kumudha whom she had tormented, brings her to the court. The prince and Kumudha instantly recognize each other, perform the old ritual and Kumudha resumes her beautiful human form.
Overall it was a very enjoyable concert. Jessica Rivera as the soprano, attired in a long magenta gown with a silver belt, beautifully brought alive the character of the lovely Kumudha by the means of her melodious voice, her gentle dance movements and poses of the “Flowering Tree”. It was a treat watching Jessica’s outline being juxtaposed with the yellow fire being depicted on the tapestry which created a three dimensional effect of scenes being sung by the chorus.
Tenor Russel Thomas, who too did justice to his role as the prince, has earned a name for himself as one of the most exciting vocal and dramatic talents on the international opera and concert scenario. Grammy award-winner brass baritone Eric Owens too effectively enacted his role as a storyteller. While the text for the three main characters was in English, the chorus sang in Spanish in a rhythmic pattern and also acted as the village people and the court.
The depiction of the pictures of Ganesha, Indian puppets, the sari-clad wicked queen with a “Tikka” on her forehead on the tapestry behind the chorus added an Indian flavor to the opera. The name of Lord Shiva too finds mention in Jessica’s song in the lines, “Siva, you have no mercy. Why did you bring me to earth?” when she lay in the gutter in a semi-human form. The five forms of Lord Shiva described in the Hindu religion are that of a Creator, Preserver, Destroyer, Concealer and Revealer.
The spectators had a great time watching the concert. Remarked Mark Barnes, an archaeologist from Atlanta, “It is very fascinating the way the composer combined the idea of classical western music. I liked the idea of the visual effects which helped in explaining the story that was being sung by the chorus.” Nina Patil, a visitor from Maharashtra, echoed these sentiments. “The story, visual effects and technology were very appealing,” she said.
Earlier, in an email interview, the composer of the “Theater of the Concert series”, James Alexander, revealed, “I am using my own staging company, SymphonyV.0 for the 1st time to support this staging with the ASO. At SV.0 we design media rich interactive and immersive audience experiences for opera and symphony concerts.”
He revealed that the concept of staging this production had evolved as early as June 2011 when he was introduced to Clark by composer Mark Grey and they had been working on “A Flowering Tree” since March 2012. Asked as to what prompted him to use a story from India, Alexander said that Maestro Spano had invited him to stage this opera, this beautiful love story from South India. “This was my first dip into a rich pool of Indian stories other than the Mahabharata which I read many years ago and of course saw the travelling Peter Brook production in 1990 when it came to my native Glasgow,” he further added.
“I have never been to India, I’d love to visit and be steeped in the cultural history and get a real feel for the place, knowing that each area of the country is so diverse,” he further said.
About his future productions, James Alexander said that he is working on four Stokowski concerts for the Philadelphia Orchestra this June and is creating a production of Mozart’s Magic Flute (which has many similar themes) for the Aspen Music Festival this July. SV.0 is currently inviting other opera and symphonies to consider staging this magical work, he said.
Asked which place he liked to perform best and why, James Alexander said, “I adore coming to Atlanta because the audiences here are intelligent and engaging and ask challenging and insightful questions. At the risk of sounding disingenuous I have been in Atlanta six summers now with the ASO and it has become my second home, so I guess I’d have to say Atlanta.”
To a question if he would again perform with the “Atlanta Symphony Orchestra”, the composer categorically said: “I would love to be invited back by the ASO”.