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.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
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.