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New Opera Notes: A Flowering Tree

Other Articles:

Lucasta Miller, Rock me Amadeus (The Guardian, June 3)

Matthew Westphal, Photo Journal: John Adams's A Flowering Tree Premieres at New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna (Playbill Arts, November 15)

Anne Midgette, Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Love Blooms (Literally) (New York Times, November 16)
-- "It’s an Indian folk tale about magic and love, which Mr. Adams has set to sweet music and Mr. Sellars has wrapped in veils of bright color. It wants to be lovely. It wants to seduce. It is almost aggressive in its desire to be liked."

Mark Swed, In Mozart's spirit (Los Angeles Times, November 21)

Norman Lebrecht, Opera finds a new world (La Scena Musicale, November 22)
-- "New Crowned Hope may be the biggest travelling circus of high art and hocus-pocus since Phineas T. Barnum toured the opera diva Jenny Lind in his transcontinental freak show."

Anne Midgette, An Arts Festival Inspired by Mozart the Social Crusader (New York Times, November 25)

Alex Ross, Hold the Mozart (The New Yorker, December 4)
-- "Adams, who conducted the première, was the only Anglo-Saxon male in the pit or on the stage."
The main event in contemporary opera this month was the New Crowned Hope festival, directed by Peter Sellars in Vienna, covered by Alex Ross among others. I read an interesting interview with Peter Sellars, by Marie-Noëlle Tranchant (Peter Sellars réinvente Mozart, November 21) for Le Figaro (my translation):
What was your vision of this Mozart celebration?

Mozart's imagination was inspired by a dream of a universal culture, that is a reality for us. It is up to us to ask questions today with the same power of anticipation, to prepare tomorrow's reality. It is that spirit that enlivens all the festival's creations: through music, dance, theater, film, visual arts, continuing from where Mozart left off, and finding contemporary equivalents for his vision. The artists have to imagine the unimaginable, and that will become real in a future generation. But we have to do this by being tested.

Where does this title, New Crowned Hope, come from?

After the French Revolution, the Masonic Lodges were outlawed in Austria, but a group of citizens asked the emperor for a gesture of tolerance by allowing one of the lodges to reopen. This lodge was called New Crowned Hope. Composing a cantata for the evening of its reopening Mozart's last public act. This takes us far away from the clichés we associate with him, towards his deep commitments.

Do you have ties to Free Masonry yourself?

The Masonic movement obsesses me because I am American: the Free Masons founded my homeland. 1776 is an impressive date, where we passed from theoretical ideas to the real possibility for human beings to govern themselves in equality. Let's say it is the positive side of the political change of which the French Revolution was the negative side. In my opinion the soundtrack of the French Revolution in Mozart is Don Giovanni, which is full of violence and rapaciousness. It was also the moment that Mozart was no longer being commissioned by the court of Austria. He could no longer go in the direction of revolutionary Free Masonry. After the despair that appears in Cosi Fan Tutte, he understood that he had to reinvent everything: that would be the magical lightness of The Magic Flute, its fragility, its tender and vulnerable sweetness.

You have also created two new operas stagings for this festival.

A Flowering Tree, composed by my friend John Adams, is a legend of southern India that takes up the themes of love, trials, and transformation from The Magic Flute, with dances from Java and players and singers from Venezuela. Les Larmes de Simone is a sort of funerary ceremony that retraces the way of the cross followed by the philosopher Simone Weil. Amin Maalouf's text, of extraordinary suppleness and tenderness, is in tune with the destruction of the title character, and Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's music is like a Bach passion.

Could one say that this festival creates the tie that you have always sought between art and politics?

Who can speak with wisdom and equilibrium, without being afraid of contradictions, while accepting them in a deep and immense breath that leaves them behind? Who, if not artists? Vienna invented and perfected the string quartet in a time when the idea of democracy was emerging. What is profound in the quartet is the truth of the dialogue among four instruments who affirm their individuality while creating a community. That requires extreme discipline and sensitivity, so that disagreements end up reinforcing the common ground rather than destroying it. But it is a way to get past the shock of other civilizations.
That last response -- it is far from being an answer to the interviewer's question -- is classic Sellars. My understanding is that the German-language reviews were harshly negative, but I thought I would quote some of Eric Dahan's mostly positive review (L'«Arbre» enchanteur, November 18) for Libération (my translation):
For two and a half hours, Sellars enlivens George Tsypin's fairy tale sets -- a bare tree surrounded by suspended platforms -- with as much gravity (the trials of Kumudha) as comedy (the Bollywood routines of the Javanese dancers). John Adams seems to have been so galvanized by the passion and orchestral and vocal colors of the Latino troupe that he has sometimes evoked Revueltas. An uninteruppted torrent of harmonic ideas, rhythmic and "timbral," this explosive and refined score confirms Adams as the best operatic composer since the death of Britten. An Oriental dreamland (harp, glockenspiel, celesta, vibraphone) and dreams of the heart (Debussy-like flute duo, Coltrane-like clarinet, bassoon solo), worldly violence (close counterpoint, barbaric polyrhythms) and flashes of ecstasy, Adams with this Flowering Tree gives masterful homage to Mozart.
Other reviews will be added as they appear.

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