He Who Blogs from the Left Coast has saved me from blogging about...I don't even know at this point, blogging about the guy down the other end of the office singing a Sinatra tune as he filled his bottle at the water cooler. (He was fine. Which is to say: I wasn't really listening but he's kind of handsome.)
HWBFTLC has this to say:
Okay, Mr. D'Annato, I don't have to tell you how much I respect John Adams as a composer. I mean, who else writing operas right now has such a recognizable voice, such a combination of sonic complexity and emotional directness? Such a marriage of grand gesture and tiny detail? And the music of A Flowering Tree is filled with both sublime gestures and beautiful, intricate detail. Like the tree itself, depicted by a maze of sparkling string harmonics. Or a passage in which the three percussionists all played shakers or maracas of various sizes, layering their rhythms on top of one another like a dance heard from a distance. Or the contrabassoon, bass clarinet, and trombones playing closely interlocking parts like the calls of enormous bullfrogs. Or the end of the second act, simultaneously overwhelming in it sheer force, and disarmingly understated in its refusal to dwell on the climax achieved.
So that's the good news. The bad news is that the libretto is so wretchedly awful that almost every time I started to pay attention to the works, I wasn't able to think about the music at all. The problem begin at a fundamental level: maybe you've notices that one of the things that opera does really well is let characters express their internal emotions in periods of song-like reflection. We call these arias. They tend to be parts we go back to listen to. On the othe hand opera is really bad at prose narration (unless maybe if it's Wagner and probably not even then). Those are the parts we tend to skip over. So surely, at some point in the process of conceiving, writing, composing and revising this opera, someone could have said: maybe it's not the brightest idea to write an opera that is two and a half hours of almost uninterrupted parlando recitative narration...
And then there's the words themselves. Again someone must have noticed that some of the lines were... odd? Cliché? Hoaky? Unsingable? "My arms had the grace of the bamboo..." "[He was] like an elephant, after eating certain leaves..." "She massaged her chest with the stump where her arm had been..." STUMP?! I wanted to reach out to the supertitles with gigantic red pen and edit. More specifically, the libretto needed to find a tone and then stick to it. One moment we hear, "Was this the bliss I wed you for?" and the next minute, "She tried, but she couldn't, she couldn't..." (And in addition to the jarring tone, the would "couldn't" sounds really dumb when sung operatically/.)
Here's a more elaborate example: in one of the very few actual aria-type moment, when the two lovers express their sadness at being apart, the Prince sings
Four parts of the day I grieve for you
Four parts of the night I'm mad for you
How many different ways is this bad libretto writing? First, I have no idea what it means. Four parts... out of four? Out of twelve? What? Second, you may be surprised to find that when sung, the line sound a lot like, "For parts of the day I grieve..." Which is amusingly insulting. Thirdly, it's telling, not showing. My fifth-grade creating writing teacher told me that was a bad idea, for some reason. AND, grieving and madness aren't exactly the day/night opposition the lines seem to require. AND it's just plain hackneyed.
Hey! I wonder if I could write some better lines?
From dusk to dawn my eyes are red with weeping;
From dawn to dusk my hoarse throat cries your name.
I just came up with that off the top of my head just now. It's not even very good, and still sort of cliché. But it is better, right?
Have you already guessed that Peter Sellars wrote the libretto? Well, technically the libretto is credited to Peter Sellars and John Adams. Why is Adams so devoted to that horrible little man? What does Adams think that Sellars can provide? Has he not noticed that for the past two decades all of the worse aspects of his pieces are Sellars's fault? Okay that's a bit of an overstatement, but still... Mr Adams, get some new collaborators! HIRE A FUCKING POET.
Sigh. There was some singing too... You know how Framtracker.com sometimes plays a game called "Who you wanted, who you got," where they guess who filmmakers originally had in mind for a particular role? ("Harrison Ford isn't available? How about Dennis Quaid?") Well... Did you want Dawn Upshaw? Perhaps we can interest you in Jessica Rivera? This sounds like an insult, and it shouldn't. She's a good singer. She has a piercing top, and interesting diction. She just sounds a lot like Dawn Upshaw, is all I'm saying. The bass Eric Owens sang and sang and sang his wordy talky chatty narration, giving me nothing I feel like I can actually judge his voice with. Russell Thomas was fine. Good, even.
Oh I give up. There was a great big standing O at the end, which just made me sadder. Did I mention that the orchestral music was terrific?
Fucking Peter Sellars...