Review: Opera Omaha's 'Flowering Tree' an assault on the emotions

Christopher Rountree, Andriana Chuchman, James Darrah
Omaha World Herald

By Kim Carpenter  

Myth, mysticism and enchantment. Those three combined are the underpinnings of a great opera, and great doesn’t begin to describe what Opera Omaha delivered last night with its production of “A Flowering Tree” at the Orpheum Theater. It was intense, epic and almost overwhelming.

Composed by John Adams, “A Flowering Tree” made its debut in 2006 and is still relatively unfamiliar to opera lovers. It has its roots in a 2,000-year-old Tamil Indian folk tale and is decidedly dark. This production may coincide with Valentine’s Day weekend, but it offers no sweet love story. Instead, when the libretto says that it is “a story of love, and then pain, and then love again,” it means pain, both physically and mentally. The story revolves around Kumudha, a young woman who uses her ability to transform into a flowering tree to rescue her family from poverty. A prince, fascinated by her power, marries her, but he is interested only in the object of her transformation, not her as a person. When his jealous sister sees the ritual, she coerces Kumudha into transforming in front of her friends. They grow bored, however, and depart mid-ceremony, abandoning Kumudha as a grotesque monstrosity that is half human, half tree. The prince in turn undergoes his own transformation, from arrogant royal to heartbroken beggar. The story ultimately has a happy ending of sorts, but it takes the characters a great deal of time and emotional trauma to get there. Although this all might seem narratively challenging to communicate in just a little over two hours, James Darrah delivered a mesmerizing production. He first worked with Opera Omaha last season when he directed “Agrippina,” and this time around, his direction was even more compelling. As Kumudha, soprano Andriana Chuchman was a tragic heroine to the ultimate, anguished degree. She had a richly robust voice, one full of the soft lushness and stark strength akin to that of her transformative tree. Equally impressive was her tormented physicality as she writhed from sacred to profane to human again. Tenor Andrew Staples gave a nuanced performance as the prince who went through his own transformation. Staples’ clear, rich voice was beautifully balanced throughout the evening, and whether in lust, mourning or love, he had undeniable chemistry with Chuchman. As the narrator, baritone Franco Pomponi started out just a tad weak, but as he progressed, he brought a surprisingly tender feel to the production, boldly intoning the action as a cautionary rather than fairy tale.

Opera Omaha’s chorus proved the linchpin to underscoring just how disturbing the events were. Their percussive exhortation for Kumudha to change had a terrifying edge to it, and when she was abandoned and lost all hope, their slowly petering commentary had a weary resignation to it. 

Christopher Rountree heightened their impact through his elegant conducting of the Omaha Symphony, no easy task given the staccato punctuations and undulating rhythms he had to communicate, and the six dancers performing Zack Winokur’s choreography added an aggressive, at times violent, physicality to the production.

The most spectacular moment of the evening came at the end when Kumudha, held tenderly by the prince, metamorphosed back into human form. 

This was achieved not by pouring water over her as had been done at the beginning to turn her into a tree, but through an actual torrential downpour that soaked the singers and beat a haunting rhythm against the stage.By the end of the evening, the audience had been through an emotionally exhaustive yet utterly gripping performance, one that made this opera stand out as one of Opera Omaha’s most dramatic productions. People will still be talking about it years from now — and deservedly so.