A great new opera grows with ‘Flowering Tree’ 

"A Flowering Tree," which had its American premiere in Davies Hall this weekend, has some of John Adams’ best work — in fact, it’s a two-hour treasure house of beautiful music. Obviously a (or the) leading opera composer of our time, Adams has never given us such emotional, just plain gorgeous sound as in "Flowering Tree."

It is a major, wonderful work, one which — significantly — leaves the listener wishing to hear it again, and wanting more like it.

Coming from its Vienna world premiere, where it was part of a festival celebrating Mozart, the opera is somewhat related to "The Magic Flute," dealing with transformations. Adams and director Peter Sellars wrote the libretto based on an ancient southern Indian folktale about a young woman who can turn herself into a tree. She sacrifices her human form in order to support her poor family by selling the flowers she produces. A prince falls in love with the girl, and her transformations create dramatic conflicts, including a static second act that she spends as a stump of flesh, a shapeless thing, a twisted, mutilated body.

Adams conducting the San Francisco Symphony on three consecutive nights (this report is from Saturday), everything clicked, and considering the large, unusual forces employed in Sellars’ production, that in itself is a triumph.

Although thrilled by the three soloists, the chorus, and the Javanese dancers, my first acknowledgment is for the orchestra, especially the strings. Never has Adams lavished so much shimmering, hushed, singing music on the violins, and — with concertmaster Alexander Barantschik in the lead — those violins sang their hearts out all evening long.

With "undertones" of Janacek, Ravel and Richard Strauss, this music from Adams is the finest achievement of transformed, exalted minimalism.

Unlike some of the intellectually-generated structure and the audible reaching for effect elsewhere, Adams here writes from the heart.

Rivera and Thomas, both making their local debut, impressed mightily with beauty of tone, powerful projection (quite apart from the lamentable Adams-Selllars insistence on amplification), and their stage work. It’s such a waste, however, to have Rivera wriggle on the floor for most of Act 2, as a as a legless, armless tree trunk, rather than sing.

The wonderful dancers enacting the story should have left the singers to do what they are best at. The veteran Javanese court dancer Rusini Sidi, the very young but accomplished Eko Supriyanto, and Astri Kusuma Wardani, who mixes Javanese classical dance and martial arts, have made major contributions to the production.

While waiting for the Symphony Chorus’ new director, Ragnar Bohlin, to take up his position, senior chorus members take turns preparing productions. David J.

Xiques was responsible for "Flowering Tree," the large, colorfully dressed chorus singing with its accustomed excellence. Adams’ choral writing here ranges from barely perceptibe background sound, almost as instruments of the orchestra, to some prominent, savage participation in the action.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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