I’ve seen two operas in the past few weeks, and both were beautifully performed, Mozart’s Don Giovanni by the Atlanta Opera and John Adam’s The Flowering Tree by the Atlanta Symphony. One was an utterly satisfying experience, and the other quite a bit less so. Yeah, well, it was Mozart wasn’t it? Well, yes, it was, but John Adams is a very fine composer who has written some operatic works that look as if they will stay in the repertoire – a pretty major feat without having to be Mozart.

I’m not really interested in comparing the composers. Mozart is Mozart, and the music for The Flowering Tree was beautiful. The thing that has kept me thinking about the two experiences was the differences in the concept of what opera is supposed to do. In Don Giovanni there is a complex story that can be read on many levels, as it has been over its more than two centuries. There is also a librettist with a very humane perspective and a sense of humor about the human condition. There are musical descriptions of the characters in the opera that deepen our understanding of the characters – some of it is ironic, some even melodramatic. It is opera about human beings and their various reactions to evil.

In The Flowering Tree it seemed to me that while the Indian folk tale offered some interesting characters who react to events that are caused by tragic circumstances or thoughtless behavior or awe towards powerful people, it did not humanize the characters in the way Da Ponte’s libretto did. In Don Giovanni people of all conditions in life have humanity; in The Flowering Tree I thought it seemed less so. The mother disappeared after apologizing for beating her daughters in mistaken anger over their behavior. She seems more like a caricature than a person of real humanity like Leporello, Masetto, or Zerlina.

The prince, who by turns is a spoiled brat, a sleepwalking depressive, and the person who knows how to solve the problem, reminds one of poor Don Ottavio, the weakest character in Don Giovanni. Even so he does not show any growth as a person. He recognizes his beloved Kumudha and brings her back to her human form, and we hope they live happily ever after. His sister, whose thoughtlessness precipitates the separation of the two lovers, acts to reunite them, but she doesn’t go out to look for the lost Kumudha; it is her maids who bring her the information upon which she acts. Again, we hope that now that she is Queen of another city, that she has some adult ideas, but we don’t know that from the opera. Things seem to happen pretty randomly in this story. Maybe I just don’t get it; it was a long time before I clued in to Swan Lake.

Don Giovanni offers characters who actively oppose evil. Perhaps their level of commitment to this opposition varies from one to another as does the level of their fascination with evil, presented in the very attractive form of the Don, but all of them eventually oppose him. Leporello is the least and last, and Donna Elvira is the most direct and the longest in opposition. She may actually be the heroine of the story even though she often is presented as a ludicrous character. When one is watching a really good performance of Don Giovanni, one is free to contemplate the motives and actions of a group of interesting people. I really think that enlightening us about ourselves and the world in which we live is an excellent thing for opera to do.

It may be that if I study The Flowering Tree as much as I have Don Giovanni, I will find that the use of such mighty forces as it requires leads to as much thought provoking drama. Right now, I don’t think so. I thought that it had some nice music, but it seemed to exist more to create a large work for orchestra, chorus, and soloists than for any dramatic reason. It seems to me that keeping opera on a human scale is a better use of large musical forces than the Wagnerian ideas of philosophical discourse in music. It may be that the idea of transformation in The Flowering Tree is what attracted John Adams to the story. There is lots of transformation. I don’t know the score well enough to know if he was taking the idea into the orchestra and working things out in a Wagnerian manner.

The orchestra was clearly the star of the show, which is nice for the ASO, but it leaves question about why a singer would want to learn the roles. Eric Owens, Jessica Rivera, and Russell Thomas are all wonderful singers who did great jobs in what they were given to sing – particularly Jessica Rivera, who did have the best music. Sometimes singers are criticized for wanting to show what they can do rather than paying attention to the drama. It seems that this opera resulted from a composer who wanted to show what he could do with music for an opera without thinking about the story the way he did in Dr. Atomic and Nixon in China.

I’m not sure that The Flowering Tree is an opera in which human character is examined, described, or expressed in music. Perhaps that is why I see such a lack in the whole work. The Atlanta Opera’s The Golden Ticket, based on the famous children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory suffered from a similar lack of story and characterization. There was lots of nice music there, too, but not much in the way of interesting human characters. I guess I’ll just have to like Don Giovanni better.