REVIEW: Visual artistry on display in Opera Queensland’s ‘A Flowering Tree’


The sense of a feast and a rich antipasto platter of musical and visual artistry was the dominant impression of Opera Queensland’s new production of John Adams’ A Flowering Tree this month, writes reviewer Tim Passmore.

The majestic concert staging of A Flowering Tree by Opera Queensland’s Artistic Director Patrick Nolan elegantly combined real-time performance with projections of live and filmed imagery.

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The Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Opera Queensland Chorus took centre stage, backed by a pair of luxuriant twelve-metre long drapes for the mythical Indian tale of Kamudha, a poor young woman who miraculously transforms herself into a tree with exquisite flowers sold to feed her family.

A Flowering Tree plays more as meditation than drama with a recitation of chant-like phrases by a narrator, and the sense of ceremony reinforced by a chorus singing mainly in Spanish, just as Christian liturgies were once intoned in Latin.

A number of key characters never appear onstage. Even the two we see – Kamudha and the callow Prince who falls in love with her – spend only a fraction of time addressing each other.

But if the opera’s storytelling seems hardly more than an excuse for rhapsody, Adams’ music certainly calls for some spectacular displays of performing talent.

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra sounded in peak form, with an abundant array of sonorities, crisp rhythms and scintillating solos all deftly coordinated by conductor Natalie Murray Beale.

One sequence of horn calls was so vivid you could almost see the elephants lumbering by.

The chorus tripped nimbly through the music’s tricky intricacies as well as soaring over the orchestra with exhilarating power.

The solo singers, too, demonstrated mastery of Adams’ difficult vocal gymnastics. Craig Colclough’s bright bouncy baritone was clear enough of diction not to need surtitles, and his slightly raffish contemporary suit provided a point of connection for contemporary spectators.

As the Prince who learns to love more profoundly, Adrian Dwyer’s tenor offered both fluid flexibility and solid top notes. He also managed to wear a dazzling Maharajah bridegroom ensemble without a trace of irony.

As the central dryadic Kamudha, soprano Eva Kong projected vocal allure, her dark svelte ribbon of tone glazed with a sensitively shimmering vibrato.

Physically she channelled her inner tree with the graceful upturned palms and rippling fingers of sacred Indian dance, and seized the music’s rare moments of actual pathos.

After her Kamhuda suffered a disfiguring interruption to her transformation rite, Kong cut a pitiable figure of bleeding bark, and tugged at the heart with gorgeously tapered soft phrases.  

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The musical riches were complimented by the production’s opulent visuals. The huge central projections overlayed live closeups of singers and musicians with lush montages of nature and classical Indian art.

At key moments pillars of drapery arose and spread in abstract evocation of the tree-morphing episodes.

All in all, an expert and valiant mounting of a major work by a prominent living composer.

A Flowering Tree began Opera Queensland’s 2019 season earlier this month. To find out about their upcoming productions, visit the Opera Queensland website.

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