01 May 2007
Miami “Karenina” a dream come true
Colin Graham’s dream of an opera based on Tolstoi’s “Anna Karenina” extends far into the past.
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
Colin Graham’s dream of an opera based on Tolstoi’s “Anna Karenina” extends far into the past.
In 1968 the British-born all-around man of opera began paring the novel down for his mentor Benjamin Britten. The premiere was slated for Moscow’s Bolshoi. However, when Soviet troops marched into Prague that summer, Britten was urged to abandon the project. In 1978 Graham wrote the libretto for Ian Hamilton’s “Anna Karenina,” a work that, following its premiere at English National Opera and a Los Angeles staging, has sunk into oblivion.
Graham’s dream came true only this year, when on April 28 Miami’s Florida Grand Opera staged the world premiere of “Anna Karenina,” now a close collaboration between Graham, librettist and stage director, and American composer David Carlson. It is sad, however, that Graham did not see the new opera, which is all that he might have wished for in success. Ill, but nonetheless deeply involved in the premiere, he died on Good Friday, April 6.
“Anna Karenina,” the crowning glory of the GFO’s first season in Miami’s new Ziff Ballet Opera House, is a memorial and monument to him. In 2001 FGO general director Robert M. Heur was contemplating a new work to celebrate the opening of the company’s new home in Miami’s $500 million Carnival Center for the Performing Arts.
Two years later — encouraged by Graham and FGO music director Stewart Robertson — Heuer commissioned Carlson to write “Anna Karenina.” Carlson, too, had been thinking of a “Karenina” opera since Graham had mentioned his interest at a 1993 meeting in St. Louis.
Graham, obviously very familiar with the Tolstoi by the time of the FGO commission, tailored an amazing libretto for Carlson. He has not merely condensed the 800-page book to fit a 2.5-hour score; he has distilled the essence of the novel by focusing on the two couples at its center: Anna and her lover Vronsky, and the sensitive country boy Levin and his youthful wife Kitty, once madly in love with — but rejected by — Vronsky. Concerned with character and not with history, Graham wisely overlooked Levin’s proto-socialist concern for the working class, the aspect of the novel that kept it in the Soviet canon.
The brief arias written by Graham reach to the marrow of the human experience, and Carlson has woven them into a tapestry of mesmerizing music. Before setting to work on the score, the composer went to Russia to absorb the atmosphere. He heard the bells of St. Petersburg, which echo in the opening bars of the work, and settled on the theme from the Tsarist hymn familiar from Tchaikovsky’s “1812" Overture to give a Russian color to the opera. Variations on the theme become a “Fate” motif that recurs at crucial points in the story. And to achieve the lush sonority demanded by the story he decided upon an orchestra of 19th-century dimensions, which, however, he employs with discipline. In what might be called American verismo, Carlson treats his characters with the tenderness of late Richard Strauss.
The capacity opening-night audience in the 2400-seat Ziff was spellbound by the work. For the premiere the FGO assembled an ideal cast largely of young singers who in appearance could easily be the persons they play. (Most of them will be on stage in St. Louis.) Kelly Kaduce is an elegant and aristocratic Anna; she portrays the emptiness of her marriage, her surrender to passion and consequent downfall from the heart, remaining always a woman of courage who has the sympathy of the audience. As Anna disintegrates and turns to laudanum Kaduce’s velvet voice takes on an edge of nervousness, insecurity and despair. It is a demanding role and a new triumph for this still youthful American soprano.
Konstantin Levin, the counterweight to Anna, is to a large degree a self-portrait of Tolstoi, and Brandon Jovanovich, tall, lean, blond and bearded, makes him the noblest Russian of them all. Jovanovich, a tenor with baritone heft, includes Pinkerton, Cavaradossi and Werther among his signature roles. As Levin, it is his concern for all that elevates the story from the personal to the universal. Small wonder that he recently received a Richard Tucker Award!
The opera ends not with Anna’s suicide, but with an epilogue, in which it is left to Levin to conclude with Tolstoi’s that “we must learn to know ourselves and to love each other.”
Polish-born Robert Gierlach, a baritone frequently heard as Mozart’s Figaro and Giovanni, makes Vronski’s self-centered undoing credible, while lanky bass-baritone Christian Van Horn is a touch too full-voiced and handsome to be a convincing Karenin. A pudgy nail-biter would fit the role better.
Supporting roles are well sung by Sarah Coburn (Kitty), Christine Abraham (Dolly), William Joyner (Stiva), Dorothy Byrne (Lydia) and Josepha Gayer (Betsy). Special recognition goes to veteran Rosalind Elias as Levin’s aged housekeeper Agafia. Elias made her FGO debut in 1977.
Neil Patel and Robert Perdziola, responsible — respectively — for sets and costumes — have caught the spirit of the opera remarkably with designs of stylized simplicity, yet true to Tolstoi’s time. A revolving stage is used effective for rapid changes of scene that contribute much to the continuity of the staging.
Stewart Robertson extracts sensuous sounds from the FGO orchestra, and a very able Mark Streshinsky stepped in for Colin Graham early in the rehearsal period.
In only a month this production will be on stage at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and later at Michigan Opera, its third co-commissioner. Happily, Opera America held its annual meeting in Miami on the final April weekend, and that means that the “big brass” of opera in this country — 500 administrators — were present at the premiere of “Anna Karenina.”
One can hope that they shared the enthusiasm of the opening-night audience, who made clear that a great American opera has finally been written. In 2005, by the way, Boris Eifman used music by Tchaikovsky to create an “Anna Karenina” ballet in St. Petersburg.