A Flowering Tree

A Flowering Tree
Opera by John Adams. Libretto: John Adams and Peter Sellars. Based on a South Indian folktale and poems translated by A.K. Ramanujan. Opera Queensland and Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Natalie Murray Beale. Director: Patrick Nolan. Concert Hall, QPAC. 2-6 April 2019

Opera Queensland’s new artistic director Patrick Nolan brings his Helpmann award-winning production of American John Adams’ A Flowering Tree to Brisbane. His Australian premiere staging of the work was for the Perth Festival in 2009. It’s not the first time Brisbane has seen a work by Adams, Opera Q having previously produced his Nixon in China as a co-production with the Brisbane Festival in 2009.

A Flowering Tree is based on a South Indian folktale and poems translated by A.K. Ramanujan, and tells a story of a young impoverished girl Kumudha who magically transforms herself into a flowering tree, the Prince who weds her, his jealous sister who mutilates her when she is transformed, and her final rehabilitation and redemption by her husband’s love. Written in 2006, and premiering in Vienna, the opera was part of a festival celebrating Mozart’s 250th anniversary, and took its inspiration from the composer’s The Magic Flute and its transformation and betrayal with love conquering all.

With only three characters, the girl Kumudha, the Prince and a storyteller/narrator, the work is strikingly staged with the Queensland Symphonic Orchestra and the Opera Queensland Chorus.

Bryan Woltjen’s stage design was breathtakingly exciting with swathes of curtains lifted and lowered on either side of the stage and a huge upstage framed box with two white curtains the full height of the Concert Hall. Onto the curtains played Mic Gruchy’s video projections which mixed images of flowers (lots of water lilies) and shots of the principals and orchestra members as they played. Aided by Jason Glenwright’s moody lighting, it was intimate and added a frisson of magic to the performance.

Standout of the trio of performers was American Craig Colclough as the narrator with his wonderfully clear bass-baritone and its rich tone. Eva Kong’s Kumudha was powerful, portraying empathy with passion, whilst Adrian Dryer’s Prince had shades of vocal colour, especially when wandering lost after he renounced his wealth. The chorus, dressed appropriately in costume, added to the soundscape by commenting on the action and playing peripheral characters singing in Spanish.

Adam’s score was minimalist but totally accessible with some passages reminiscent of Bernstein and others of Schoenberg and played with exceptional flexibility and élan by the orchestra under the baton of Adams’ disciple Natalie Murray Beale.

Peter Pinne          

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