JOHN ADAMS: A Flowering Tree – Russell Thomas, tenor/ Jessica Rivera, soprano/ Eric Owens, bass-baritone/ Schola Contorum Caracas/ London Symphony Orchestra/ John Adams, conductor – Nonesuch 327100, (2 CDs) 59:35; 52:59 *****:
John Adams adapted an Indian folktale to create A Flowering Tree, an opera commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. It shares with The Magic Flute themes of magic, redemption, transformation and a dawning awareness to youth of the world’s complexities and sorrows. In his recent work, Adams has increasingly investigated new instrumental sonorities. Although this new opera uses 32 percussion instruments, including chiming bells and gongs, it retains the essence of a chamber work. Sensuous and subtle, this score features a delicate, shimmering soundscape produced by the celesta, strings, harp, flutes and recorders. These ravishing sounds are underscored by propulsive tonalities from the horns and woodwinds. The large array of percussion instruments are used with exquisite finesse. It is a huge orchestra, superbly adapted to the scale of a chamber ensemble, in the service of an imaginative score. The sonorities Adams extracts from his orchestra have the same sort of magical quality that is found in Stravinsky’s brilliant ballet scores such as The Firebird and Petrouchka: an indication of the high level of Adams’ latest creative work.
In this 2000 year old South Indian folk tale, a beautiful young girl conceives a plan to help her poor family: she transforms herself into a tree, from which she and her sister gather the beautiful and fragrant flowers, weaving them into garlands to sell in the marketplace. The magic ritual requires two pitchers of water for the girl to turn into a tree, and two pitchers of water to turn back into human form. A young prince sees her and desires her for his wife. After their wedding, the prince commands that she metamorphose for him. She does so but the prince’s jealous sister spies upon her and later demands she perform the ritual in front of her friends. After the girl turns into a tree, however, the callous friends break her branches, tear off her flowers and abandon her, without helping her return to human form. Not quite human, not a tree, she enters a netherworld of despair. The distraught prince wanders the countryside as a beggar. After many years of wasting away in grief, the prince happens upon a distant town in which his wife has also arrived. The queen of the town happens to be the prince’s sister. Shocked at her brother’s state, she tries to help him but to no avail. As a last resort, her servant’s bring the strange half woman-half tree to the prince. The two recognize each other and with pitchers of water the prince restores his wife to human appearance.
Adams immersed himself in the darker side of human nature in his previous opera, Doctor Atomic. It is almost as if the return to childlike innocence freed him to create a radiant sunburst of orchestral beauty. This score abounds in ravishing music, some of the most purely gorgeous music of recent years. And just like in his earlier masterpiece, Nixon in China, one can hear echoes of Wagner in this score: used, perhaps, as a means of ironic distancing. In the hands of a lesser composer than Adams, this tale could easily devolve into a sea of bathos. But Adams has grown into possibly our finest living composer. He never utilizes anything other than an utterly appropriate compositional element, a hallmark of this score’s beauty and poise.
Even without the visual component of a live performance, this verdant score, beautifully recorded by the Nonesuch engineers, floods the mind with lovely images. This ability to fire the imagination of its auditors is only one measure of the greatness of this imaginative opera. The vocal soloists Russell Thomas, Jessica Rivera and Eric Owens, complement the orchestra with subtle perfection, never calling attention to themselves. They immerse themselves in the music, only rising to its shimmering surface to further its sense of wonder. Both soloists and chorus are superbly recorded. The overall recorded sound of the London Symphony Orchestra is deep, rich and warmly resonant, with a spacious soundfield. The only complaint might be a crying need for multichannel sound – and even that complaint is a result of this opera’s multi-faceted nature. John Adams has produced a masterwork. Most strongly recommended!
— Mike Birman