Tree of Light

Photo: Ruth Walz

John Adams, who has written operas about some of our time’s grimmest shadows—terrorism, nuclear weapons, Richard Nixon—has finally discovered sweetness. The Flowering Tree, which had its New York premiere last week at Mostly Mozart, is a perfumed fable based on a traditional love story from India and given an air of sparkle and antiquity by Adams’s regular collaborator, Peter Sellars. It’s a pleasure to see these two connoisseurs of existential anguish master the art of beguiling an audience.

Both use the tools they know. Adams has repurposed the plush, layered style of his previous opera, Doctor Atomic, minus the eerie rumbles and plus a generous dollop of charm. His rhythms churns less ominously, his melodies scud more lightly over the burbling orchestra, his long crescendos reach fortissimos that are swaddled in velvet. Sellars reaches into the trunkful of traditions he has gathered around the world. A trio of Javanese dancers—the impossibly poised and elastic Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto, and Astri Kusuma Wardani—shadow the Western singers, so that each character has both a lithe voice and physical grace, even if not in the same body.

A storyteller, baritone Sanford Sylvan, presides over every scene, and a chorus, the superb Schola Cantorum de Venezuela, exhorts and comments in urgent, crystalline Spanish, giving the opera the quality of a multicultural ritual. In less artful hands, these elements might have produced a flea-market jumble of exotica. But Adams is an assured composer who hews to the old-fashioned fundamentals of his job: Take a story about undying love and magical obstacles, and put it to lush, romantic song.

A poor girl finds that she can turn herself at will into a tree with intoxicatingly fragrant blossoms. It’s a premise made for symphonic treatment, and Adams spins out the transformation with tendrils of melody and blooming harmonies in a way that would have earned him a pat on the back from Richard Strauss. A prince spies her in mid-metamorphosis, wants the maker of his magic for his own, and so the rest of the act brims with succulent Wagnerian eroticism.

Act II brings trouble, of course, giving Adams a chance to display his impressive command of empathy. An earlier opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, reaches its apex of poignancy at an aria sung by a drowning man; Doctor Atomic’s best number documents the passion of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who uses the words of John Donne to express his regret and doubt. In The Flowering Tree, a similarly gentle mournfulness extends over nearly half the opera, acting as counterweight to the first act’s atmosphere of heady bliss.

Adams is one of the few composers who can count on such well-executed premieres. On opening night, soprano Jessica Rivera sang with impeccable tenderness, tenor Russell Thomas gave the prince’s petulant blares more juice than he really needed to, and Sylvan doled out the narrative with the confidence, ease, and perfect diction of an old Adams hand. The composer conducted, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s lived up to its reputation for being able to play virtually any score as if the musicians had all grown up with it under their pillows.

Tree of Light