To get the annoyances out of the way first: the second performance of A Flowering Tree was also interrupted mid-chorus by people who didn’t realize it started at 7:30 instead of the inevitable 8:00. I have no sympathy for these morons. Yes, the Symphony had changed the time, but I received a postcard update and then just days before the premiere a phone message, and I’m not even a subscriber, and all the articles mentioned the start time. If you can’t pay enough attention to a major premiere by John Adams to get to Symphony Hall on time, you should probably be doing something else with your evenings.
The second annoyance is the work had only three performances, and I was busy (Christine Brewer and Jonathan Biss) the two other nights, and it’s not on next year’s schedule, and I want to hear it again now. We all know the difficulty of describing essentially physical sensations like food or sex or music without sounding either overly technical or metaphorical and vague (during the first half, I was thinking rain falling through the leaves, a river flowing nearby, dark animals slinking by in the shadows – what does that convey to you? Probably not the irreplaceable sound that I heard).
I don’t have much to say about the semi-staging, mostly because I was in the second row to the far left, in front of the orchestra, and the singers were positioned to the right, so I didn’t see a lot of it. I guess if you’re going to be in view-obstructed seats the obstruction might as well be John Adams conducting. What I did see – vaguely Indian (subcontinent) costumes, dancers doubling the singers – looked fine to me. There were three raised, roughly circular, platforms that served as the stage. I went over at intermission and saw that the largest and lowest was painted in tans and blues and looked like a magnified slice of petrified wood, or possibly a minimized bird’s-eye view of a topographical map showing an island in an ocean. I couldn’t see how the other two were painted.
The opera was premiered in Vienna as part of a festival inspired by Mozart and the Magic Flute, or perhaps inspired by Peter Sellars's attempt to fund new works during the Mozart year. Apparently the Viennese critics found it too California multi-culti, which is actually pretty hilarious, since despite the many progenitors I thought of (Bach Passions with their narrators and turbulent choruses, Greek and Indian mythology, Debussy, and most especially Shakespeare’s late romances) the work is a far more unified whole than the Magic Flute, with its weird (though delightful) amalgam of Persian, Egyptian, German, and Free Mason influences and its extreme (though effective) shifts in tone from the most elevated and noble to the silliest and earthiest. But as I discovered when I moved back East, California is a powerful concept to people. Qualities peculiar to me were attributed to my being a California native, or misinterpreted and mocked as some sort of evidence of a “California mellow” quality (“mellow” – that’s a word you don’t hear much anymore, fortunately). Then in late 1986 the Globe reported that companies were hiring grief counselors to help their employees cope with the Red Sox World Series loss and I thought, I don’t want to hear these people making fun of Californians ever again. People love their easy labels.
The audience seemed particularly rapt and appreciative, so I was a little surprised to read a very negative review by Maury d’Annato’s guest blogger who hated the libretto. I respect his opinion – I’ve certainly had libretto-induced disappointment in some of Adams’s works – but I respectfully disagree. To repeat a point I made about Le Grand Macabre, the music is almost too ravishingly gorgeous for its subject, and even in the spikier and more turbulent sounds of the second half there’s a real danger that the opera could mist off into diaphanous loveliness and make a fairly dark story too pretty. To me, the plainness and occasional awkwardness of the libretto echoed the way folk tales are actually told and added the necessary grit to the music. And I have to say I particularly liked the use of the word “stump” (as in “massaging his chest with the stump of her arm”); the harshness of the sound and image reminded me of the ugly and grotesque side of the story while the music supplied its generous soul. (I do agree with the objections to “four parts of the night I grieved for you”; I recognize the attempt at folk-tale talk, but those lines really brought me out of the moment because I was trying to figure out how many parts were in a night.) The presence of a narrator tells you that you’re going to hear something more along the lines of a Passion than a regular opera; there aren't really arias, but then there aren’t really arias in Pelleas or Wozzeck either. The entire libretto is printed in the program, and I read it all in about ten minutes, and that’s for two hours of music.
It’s an interesting subject, whether great poetry makes a great libretto. Virgil Thomson tried to set the Duchess of Malfi and eventually gave up because he couldn’t compete with the music that existed in the words. I’ve heard a number of people reject Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire on the grounds that the music adds nothing to the ripely poetic prose of Williams. And I’ve heard Sondheim criticize the libretto of The Rake’s Progress (which is a favorite of mine) for being too complicated poetically and syntactically. I personally love the Stein/Thomson operas, but I know a lot of people don’t, and it’s usually because of the Stein contribution, and at that point you really just need to say to each his own, enjoy what you can.
The choruses are mostly in Spanish, which I thought was an interesting choice. It made a division (though not a rigorous one) through separate languages between individuals speaking and society speaking. Or maybe Adams just likes setting Spanish to music.
A Flowering Tree may have been inspired by the Magic Flute, but it presents a much bleaker world: here there is no Brotherhood of the Enlightened guiding the young to truth, and no trio of genii to prevent any premature suicides, and no ending triumph for the forces of light over darkness (and I love the Magic Flute, but if you want to talk about libretto-induced awkwardness you couldn’t do better than its themes of enlightenment/male/white versus superstition/female/black). Instead there is only the almost accidentally generous soul of a young woman in a world of poverty, anger, jealousy, and suspicion, whose goodness leads to suffering and whose suffering eventually leads to reunion and reconciliation.