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.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
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.