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Kumudha (Natasha Jouhl) transforms into a flowering tree [Photo by Liz Lauren]
28 May 2008

Tree-mendous in Chicago

Chicago Opera Theater scored a resounding success with its area premiere of John Adams’ newest stage piece, “A Flowering Tree.”

John Adams: Flowering Tree

Kumudha (Natasha Jouhl), Prince (Noah Stewart), Storyteller (Sanford Sylvan). Conductor: John Adams (May 14,17); Joana Carneiro (May 20, 23, 25). Director: Nicola Raab. Choreographer: Renato Zanella. Production Designer: George Souglides.

Above: Kumudha (Natasha Jouhl) transforms into a flowering tree
All photos by Liz Lauren courtesy of Chicago Opera Theater.


And it did so with a completely different take on the piece than that devised by Peter Sellars for Vienna’s world premiere in November 2006 at the Festival of New Crowned Hope.

The original concept had the large orchestra on stage, with minimal stage action relegated to small elevated playing spaces, more semi-staged oratorio than a full-fledged dramatic rendering. It is perhaps no accident that this Chicago company has “theater” prominently included in its name, for they have put the band back in the pit, and with consummate stagecraft, they fleshed out this folk tale’s libretto which was crafted by Sellars and the composer based on a story translated by A.K. Ramanujan from the Kannada language of southern India.

the-king.pngThe king (James Johnson, dancer).
The tale concerns two sisters, one of whom, “Kumudha,” is able to transform herself into “A Flowering Tree” and back again. However, her jealous sibling’s wicked friends break the spell, trapping the heroine in her tree-state, breaking her limbs, and leaving her in the gutter as a pitiful grub-like torso. After her disappearance, the “Prince,” having already wedded her for her bewitching beauty and powers, wanders disconsolately until his love restores her and reunites them in marital bliss. The only other singing principal is a “Storyteller.”

The minimalist set and costume design by George Souglides scored big, with simple yet highly imaginative effects. The first important transformation scene was accomplished with “Kumudha’s” sister (dancer Karla Victum) stretching hidden, over-long sleeves from her costume and extending and twisting the “branches” into various shapes. Each subsequent transfiguration was larger then the previous, magically accomplished with colored ropes.

Whether descending from the flies or rising from the stage floor, these were presented in artfully tied designs that would be the envy of any advanced macrame class. Indeed, the curtain rise of Act Two stunningly coincided with a “growing tree” emanating from “Kumudha” down center stage that ultimately filled the entire proscenium opening. The few set pieces and props (a veil-covered over-sized wedding bed, a gilt throne, primitive masks on poles) were selected with attentive care.

the-storyteller.pngThe Storyteller (Sanford Sylvan).
The evocative and colorful costume design was effectively based on traditional Indian and Asian street and stage garb, with a couple of the specialty dance turns being dazzlingly outfitted. I wish that same attention had been lavished on our heroine, who looked quite plain; well, too plain by comparison. Indeed, the rather lumpy and shapeless white coat she wore in the wedding scene was promisingly removed to reveal only more of the same look, if better fitted. All of this was well-served by Aaron Black’s terrific lighting, artfully combining lustrous washes of color with well-calculated and flawlessly executed specials, gobos, and area lighting.

If all this was gorgeous to behold, it would not have impacted us as strongly as it did without Nicola Raab’s masterful direction. First, without ever unduly cluttering the stage, Ms. Raab has devised meaningful and poetic movement for the large chorus and corps de ballet. As we entered the theatre, the white-garbed “Storyteller” was already seated, immobile on a chair stage right. Slowly, the chorus in reddish-orange filed on from various points and seated themselves on the stage around him, ultimately creating a visual “island” that captivates us before a note is played. We couldn’t wait to hear what he has to say.

Similarly, meaningful character relationships are defined with ethereal subtlety. The mating scene with our newlyweds walking/stalking on the bridal bed was a study in sensuous restraint, as the pair never quite touched but conveyed the impression of love-making nonetheless by tracing the head and torso with slow sweeping gestures, and intertwining their arms (well, almost) in ever inventive combinations.

Perhaps the most problematic scene of all, the dismemberment of the tree-trapped “Kumudha” was beautifully solved by having two dancers wrap her in a cocoon of a vibrant red cloth. Leaving one arm free, the actress could recline, sit up, and drag herself around the stage as a sympathetic outcast.

The ritualistic choreography by Renato Zanello was well-executed by not only his trained dancers, but also pleasingly performed by the singing chorus. The clean, thrilling choral work (most of them are in the COT Young Artists Program) was complemented by the group’s exceptional ability to transform themselves at will from commentators, to bystanders, to relatives, to royal subjects, all the while doing some amazing staged business, not the least of which was crawling from the wings on their bellies to pick up folded boards that were used in any number of combinations to create everything from a village of houses to a penultimate pop-up back-drop for the lovers’ reunion.

COT assembled a fine trio of singers as its principals. Natasha Jouhl proved an affecting “Kumudha,” singing with a well-schooled, ample lyric soprano that easily encompassed all the wide ranging demands and soaring lines of this difficult role. Originally written with Dawn Upshaw in mind, the part was taken over in Vienna (and several other locations) by rising star Jessica Rivera (who recently triumphed locally in another Adams piece, Chicago Lyric’s “Dr. Atomic”). Dawn and Jessica are two artists who really “get” this music and don’t just sing it, but embody it. That said, although she vocalized it splendidly, looked attractive, and acted with commitment, I did not yet feel that Ms. Jouhl has fully integrated the piece into her voice, or more particularly, her artistry. I would love to see her again after she has the experience of some more performances.

With Noah Stewart’s “Prince” I felt that we were experiencing an artist on the verge of a major career. He brought a regal bearing to the portrayal, and a polished, weighty lyric voice with excellent thrust on the high phrases, and wonderful presence throughout the range. Excellent diction, handsome good looks, beautiful instrument, wonderful musical instincts, sound technique, stage savvy — he’s got the goods.

I have long admired the fine artist Sanford Sylvan, but I found that his soft-grained approach was initially a little too lieder-based and subtle for the task at hand as the “Storyteller.” Seated a third of the way upstage for the first act, while I could hear his beautiful sounds and sensitive phrasing, I too often had real trouble understanding the text and found my gaze drifting to the surtitles. When he came forward to the side of the proscenium in Act Two, there was an immediate difference. This would be a quick fix by just telling him to “Sing out, Louise” when he is upstage. Still, he is a treasureable baritone and was an audience favorite.

kumudha-and-prince.pngKumudha (Natasha Jouhl) and the Prince (Noah Stewart).
Diminutive Joana Carneiro had taken over conducting duties from Mr. Adams and this was a tour-de-force assumption. “Tree” is a monster-piece that calls for split second rhythmic changes, quicksilver mood-altering shifts, lyrical outpouring, percussive tirades, and well, the kitchen sink just may have been in there somewhere. Above all, this stuff must be clean-clean-clean to make its hypnotic effect and save a few squishy moments in the opening bars’ undulating strings, Ms. Carneiro was in full command of her forces. As if she was driving a car at 120 miles an hour, there was no room for error. And she negotiated every twist and turn of this challenging piece with concentrated inspiration. Brava Maestra!

It seems as though Mr. Adams may have developed the score a bit since Vienna, where I remember thinking that perhaps the heroine should have a set piece up front to announce her character. It seems that “Kumudha” had more exposition to sing at COT. Or maybe the staging was just that much more compelling. For all its glories, and they are many and they are ravishing, I still found myself wishing that the long chanted choral dance in Act Two (sort of Rap-Lite) was a bit shorter. And I sorta wanted a radiant final duet for the reunited lovers. Have I seen “Turandot” too many times? Perhaps.

Still, this was in toto a welcome and notable achievement. Chicago is a world class musical city and with Chicago Opera Theater’s “A Flowering Tree” we have been treated to a sampling of the very best the town has to offer.

James Sohre

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