An impoverished Indian girl transforms herself into a tree so that she can sell her blossoms at the prince’s palace. The prince falls in love with her and they marry, but a jealous sister strips the tree of its branches, consigning the girl to the netherworld.
The prince tries to find his beloved by becoming a beggar. Eventually he recognises her voice, she returns to human form and they are united.
Fanciful? Naive? No more so than The Magic Flute, another love story about transformation, trial by fire and the redemptive power of music.
Those themes resound through A Flowering Tree, the latest stage work by the celebrated American composer John Adams, which last week opened a festival that promises to bring Vienna’s Mozart year to a climax.
Taking its name from the Masonic lodge attended by Mozart in the last year of his life, the New Crowned Hope festival is the brainchild of Peter Sellars. The wacky American director, a longtime Adams collaborator, has conjured €10m (£6.8m) out of the Vienna city government for a multi-media, multi-cultural jamboree that aims to pick up where Mozart left off.
No other city on the planet would spend anything like as much on a musical anniversary – but no other metropolis can claim humankind’s most communicative composer as its surrogate son. Since January, Vienna has been awash with Mozart.
The city’s tourist industry has been in overdrive. There has even been space for an opera called I Hate Mozart and a musical about the composer’s wife, featuring the Tigerlilies pop group.
You may be one of those – although I am not, I hasten to add – for whom the scale of Mozart commemoration has reached turn-off point.
Then take heart from New Crowned Hope: there’s barely a note of Mozart. It promises instead a slew of new works loosely inspired by Mozart’s final year. And you don’t have to travel to Vienna to experience it.
A Flowering Tree comes to the Berlin Philharmonic next month, and large swathes are programmed for London’s Barbican Centre and New York’s Lincoln Center next year.
Sellars’s idea is that, far from being another consumerist festival, New Crowned Hope should be an investment in creativity. So far, so inspiring. Whether you agree with the targets for his investment is another matter.
Few would quibble with Mark Morris’s Mozart Dances, already performed in New York; or a cross-cultural survey of wartime music from the Kronos Quartet and Chinese pipa player Wu Man; or the choice of Adams and Kaija Saariaho as recipients of opera commissions; or Bill Viola’s Bodies of Light video.
It’s the below-the-headlines events that have stoked controversy, the ones Sellars is using to proselytise on issues he usually saves for his opera productions: homelessness, political persecution, sexual exploitation of women, the moral bankruptcy of the western establishment – the very constituency that bankrolls his lifestyle. And the festival’s film programme is a roll-call of little-known developing world auteurs.
Sellars’ thesis is that all the big cultural movements of history have been fuelled by cross-fertilisation. Such idealism is to be treasured, but I can’t see any significant cultural exchange on the back of the Sellars circus, which has barely touched street level in Vienna.
Cultural change usually reflects wider socio-political movements; it doesn’t work in a hothouse. And Sellars’ much-trumpeted idea of Mozart – as a pioneer of the anti-slavery movement, a champion of women’s rights, an economic migrant – is as ludicrous as it is misleading. It merely reflects Sellars’ obsessions. But thanks to the skill with which he markets the Sellars brand, his ideas carry weight.
A Flowering Tree deserves to take root in the repertoire – if only for the score, an expertly crafted mirage of sound, pulsating with rhythmic and harmonic vitality. Sibelius, Stravinsky, New England lyricism and Minimalism all make an appearance, but the overall effect is of a trance-like dream with an ecstatic climax.
This is Adams at his most shimmering and seductive, above all in the syncopated choruses and “magical” instrumental effects (including a tube that mimics the sound of lapping water).
But like El Nino, a similar type of Adams-Sellars collaboration, A Flowering Tree is a hybrid; its marriage of music, mime and song does not really belong in an opera house.
With just three singers and three dancers, it is not so much a drama; more a poetic narrative. Adams strips an old Indian folk-tale to its barest thread, which he then strings out across two hours of sound, diluting its essence, flattening its contours and highlighting occasional banalities in the text. What we’re left with is a soufflé – highly palatable but with next to nothing to chew on.
At times I had no idea where we were in the story, but I was never less than entranced by the psychedelic wonder of Adams’s score.
The singers representing the girl (Jessica Rivera) and the prince (Russell Thomas) are rendered superfluous by their mimed doubles, brilliantly choreographed and performed by Rusini Sidi and Eko Supriyanto. It’s left to a narrator – the hectoring Eric Owens – to connect everything up.
By far the juiciest role is given to the choir, pushing the performance in the direction of an allegorical pageant. The jubilant “flower chorus”, written like a part-song, is intoxicating, and there are several other instances when you wish the choir would just carry on stealing the show.
The Schola Cantorum de Venezuela were certainly the stars of the Vienna performance, lightly amplified in a rectangular hall at the MuseumsQuartier.
The Joven Camerata de Venezuela responded with equal sensitivity to Adams’ baton.
Sellars’ staging, evocatively designed by Georges Tsypin and James Ingalls round a variety of small platforms, preserved the fairy-tale ambience. For one blissful moment, Sellars stopped preaching and allowed us to draw our own conclusions.
To December 13.