Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Flowering Tree at Davies Hall

I was very excited to be at the U.S. premier of John Adams new opera on March 1st at Davies Hall with the SF Symphony. Alex Ross has already given a perceptive account of the premier production in Vienna. The SF performance got the same soloists, conductor & director. Having the conductor at the podium made it even more of an occasion. This was one of those few times when at the first hearing of a serious work, I found it accessible & interesting & wanted to hear it again.

The work is supposedly inspired by Mozart's Magic Flute, though in this production it was a mix of cultural traditions: American minimalism music, Tamil love poetry, Javanese ceremonial dance, & more. It has a libretto that is in English for the soloists & in Spanish for the chorus. The music had a lot of ethereal orchestral colors & evoked Debussy, Stravinsky & Wagner, especially his Parsifal. The 2nd act even opens with a parody of the overture to the Ring. The critics are also
hearing major references to Sibelius, but I don't know his symphonies well enough to get these.

The music is based on repeating, pulsing, vibrating rhythms & tonal harmonies. Scattered among the constantly moving orchestral background are melodic solos, sometimes for unusual instruments. In particular there were solos performed beautifully by Barantschik & by the trumpet. But there were also striking solos for bass clarinet, bassoon (in a very high register), contrabasson, French horn & recorder. I had expected some electronic instruments, but Adams uses a traditional orchestra, with the addition of lots of percussion & 2 recorders.

Despite being in Davies Hall & having the Orchestra cover 3/4 of the stage, the evening was quite theatrical. It started when the chorus entered the terrace. Instead of black concert dress, each chorus member wore a different brightly colored shirt or blouse. The over-all effect was pretty & very festive. Musically the chorus turns out to be very important. They have some of the best music in the opera. The lively & boisterous choruses are the 1st things that really catch your attention.

Most of the action took place on three roughly circular platforms, painted like the insides of a geode, on the right of the stage. There was also a platform at terrace height in the back left corner of the stage. It was a small space, though, & it was a little scary to watch the male dancer up there as he went through intricate moves balancing on one leg or doing a momentary one-handed hand-stand.

There were 3 singers, one acting as a narrator, the 2 others portraying the lovers of the story. They shared the stage with 3 dancers from Indonesia. I think that part of the concept was to have something on stage that countered the restless movement of the music. So these dancers performed in what is apparently a traditional Javanese dance style that moves very slowly & deliberately. The women seemed incapable of making an awkward or ungraceful motion. They often gave the feeling that they were moving underwater. It was very mesmerizing to watch.

The singers were great & very well matched. The soprano Jessica Rivera sang particularly beautifully & expressively. She was also a great actress. Even when she had to roll around on the stage intertwined with the dancer to represent Kumudha as a stump, she managed to sing wonderfully. It was a complete performance.

I'm not a fan of Peter Sellars as a director, & this staging was typical of his style. He always keeps you very busy trying to keep track of what is happening on stage. There were many moments when I couldn't decide what I wanted to focus on. At other times the staging just looked really awkward, as when he had the large tenor bent over the small male dancer to represent the Prince's misery.

I'm not sure what to make of the story yet. It was a sadistic fairy tale. It doesn't have a conflict in the classical sense, though there is an over-all arc having to do with loss, suffering & reunion.

Reminiscent of Dr. Atomic, it ends spectacularly with an extended orchestral crescendo depicting Kumudha's final transformation. For a moment there is a major chord, then there is a long suspension in the chorus & orchestra, & finally only the notes of a major triad sounding. This was followed by a loud & enthusiastic ovation that was clearly for Adams, though he modestly refused to take a solo bow during the curtain calls.

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