I have to admit I was incredibly excited to be reviewing this performance, since I’m a big fan of American composer John Adams, and his productions of his operas don’t show up all that often in Australia. Most of them have taken relatively contemporary events as their topic, such as Nixon in China (about, well, you can guess), and Doctor Atomic (about Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb). A Flowering Tree from 2009 is quite different. It’s based on a folktale from southern India in a translation by AK Ramanujan, adapted by Adams himself and his frequent collaborator Peter Sellars.

Eva Kong, A Flowering Tree, Opera QueenslandEva Kong in Opera Queensland’s A Flowering Tree. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

A Flowering Tree is Adams’ sixth opera, and one which takes as its model Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In fact, it was originally commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, so it’s no surprise that the two operas thematically parallel each other. Perhaps the clearest links are the ideas of transformation and redemptions at the heart of the work.

Adams’ recent musical style here is worth mentioning, as well. I’ve seen more than a few descriptions of his music that amount to something like “punchy minimalism”, but that’s really not a good descriptor of his work at all. It’s rather more like modern film music if you shook it up in a glass with prog-rock theatrics and Webern’s fine-toothed orchestration. It’s an intoxicating blend, and one ideally suited to opera.

Eva Kong, A Flowering Tree, Opera QueenslandAdrian Dwyer and Eva Kong in Opera Queensland’s A Flowering Tree. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

Story-wise, this is an intimate work as well, with only three solo parts – Kumudha (Eva Kong), the Prince (Adrian Dwyer), and the Storyteller (Craig Colclough). The trio were all superb, although special mention must go to Craig Colclough. Surtitles are used throughout for both Kumudha and the Prince, but not for the Storyteller. Colclough’s perfect diction made this an effective decision, since it makes the audience pay special attention to him, rather as if sitting and listening to the tale alone.

The plot as it stands is very Mozartean: Kumudha has the ability to turn herself into a flowering tree. With her sister’s help in performing the magical ceremony, she gathers the flowers of the tree before selling them in the marketplace. The prince, in hiding, sees this and plans to marry Kumudha. They marry, but the prince demands to see her transformation. Kumudha does so, but the prince’s sister sees this take place as well, and demands that the ceremony be repeated. Losing interest, the prince’s sister leaves Kumudha part-way through the ceremony. This leaves Kumudha as part-tree and part-human. Unsure of what has occurred, the prince leaves the palace. Years later, the prince is now a beggar and his sister is now queen in a neighbouring town. The prince is brought to the palace, but lies wordlessly in bed. In the marketplace, the queen’s maids hear the misshapen Kumudha singing and suggest that this might revive the prince. Kumudha is brought to the prince, and they recognise each other. The prince performs the ceremony, and Kumudha becomes fully human again.

Eva Kong, A Flowering Tree, Opera QueenslandOpera Queensland’s A Flowering Tree. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

Initially, I was apprehensive about seeing this opera in only a semi-staged production (directed by Patrick Nolan for Opera Queensland with the OQ Chorus and Queensland Symphony Orchestra). The most jaw-dropping opera experience I’ve had was Terry Gilliam’s rather over-the-top production of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini with the English National Opera, which was a visual spectacle, to say the least. So, it was with some trepidation that I approached this production, thinking that it might feel anaemic, but it turns out that those fears were completely unfounded. The combination of Mic Gruchy’s inventive video design and Jason Glenwright’s evocative lighting opens up the stage and sparks the viewer’s imagination, with the combination feeling like you’re watching a storybook unfold. There were a few slight technical hitches – there’s an enormous pair of draped sails on either side of the stage that at one point dramatically drop to the floor. That also included, amusingly, dropping over some of the chorus members’ heads.

A Flowering Tree, Opera QueenslandOpera Queensland’s A Flowering Tree. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

Speaking of which, I was a little less convinced by the chorus, though this had absolutely nothing to do with the performance itself and more to do with some of Adams and Sellars’ choices with the libretto. Quite why the chorus sings occasionally in English and mostly in Spanish I can’t explain. Actually, that’s a bit of a fib – some online research reveals that pretty much the only reason is because there was an expert Spanish choir in residence when Adams was writing the piece. Neat, but does it work? Well, sort of. It’s a little odd hearing the Spanish word “flores” (flowers) sung to describe a marketplace in India when there’s English aplenty for the rest of the performance.

Eva Kong, A Flowering Tree, Opera QueenslandEva Kong and Natalie Murray Beale in Opera Queensland’s A Flowering Tree. Photo © Stephanie Do Rozario

Musically, Adams’ orchestration is divinely sumptuous, with a recurring use of recorders that caught my ear every time it popped up. It’s a complex work, but Natalie Murray Beale’s conducting was astonishingly assured and controlled. Apparently she’s worked with Adams himself before, so surely it’d be an excellent idea to bring her back for some more Adams operas in future – her level of expertise isn’t easy to find.

This is an evocative and persuasive production of a contemporary opera that is rarely seen in Australia, and a powerfully moving one to boot. If you’re at all a fan of opera or modern classical, don’t miss it.

Opera Queensland’s A Flowering Tree is at QPAC until April 6


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