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.
After the horrors of Jagoš Marković’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro in Belgrade, I was apprehensive lest Nabucco in Serbia’s second city of Novi Sad on 27th October would be transplanted from 6th century BC Babylon to post-Saddam Hussein Tikrit or some bombed-out kibbutz in Beersheba.
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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.