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David Carlson: Anna Karenina
20 Sep 2009

Anna Karenina: An Opera by David Carlson, Libretto by Colin Graham

Reading the articles in the booklet for this set, it becomes clear that librettist Colin Graham was the driving force behind this opera's creation.

David Carlson: Anna Karenina
Libretto by Colin Graham

Anna Karenina , wife of Alexei Karenin: Kelly Kaduce; Dolly (Princess Darya Oblonskaya), sister of Kitty Scherbatsky: Christine Abraham; Stiva (Prince Stepan Oblonsky), Anna’s brother and Dolly’s unfaithful husband: William Joyner; Levin (Konstantin Levin, called Kostya), in love with Kitty: Brandon Jovanovich; Betsy (Princess Betsy Tverskoy), a famed St. Petersburg hostess: Josepha Gayer; Vronsky (Count Alexei Vronsky), an officer in love with Anna: Robert Gierlach; Kitty (Princess Ekaterina Scherbatskaya), Dolly’s younger sister, infatuated with Vronsky: Sarah Coburn; Prince Yashvin , Vronsky’s friend: Nicholas Pallesen; Countess Lydia Ivanovna: Dorothy Byrne; Karenin (Alexei Karenin), Anna’s husband: Christian Van Horn; Aga FIa Mikhailovna , Levin’s old nurse: Rosalind Elias; Seriosha , Anna’s son: David Tate; Ann ushka , Anna’s maid: Kimberly Wibbenmeyer; A doctor: Mike Dowdy; Mikhail , Seriosha’s tutor: Brad Lewandowsky. Opera Theatre of St Louis. St Louis Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Stewart Robertson.

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Yet the protocols of the opera business dictate that under the title Anna Karenina on the jewel case cover, the first line states “An Opera by David Carlson,” followed by Graham’s credit. Tolstoy’s name only appears on the back cover. The singers’ names, truly unusually, do not appear on either cover, but only inside the booklet - on page 9!

This has the order of commendation quite backward. A young cast, headed by soprano Kelly Kaduce in the title role, works with energy and authority to try and bring the music drama to life. The grim essence of Tolstoy’s tragedy only makes itself felt intermittently, as librettist Graham works to capture more of the novels’ complexity than earlier adaptations had, while meeting the needs of the operatic stage.

All these admirable efforts, worthy or not, are sunk under the teeming waves of sound that composer David Carlson pours forth. The orchestra always seems to be more excited about the story than the characters. Moments of repose and reflection are too few as strings nervously scatter this way and that, brass barks, and the winds twitter nervously. Some moments might be identified as “aria-like,” if not actually arias, but Carlson has no gift for sustained melodic invention. As conductor, Stewart Robinson (leading the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra), manages all the challenges Carlson’s music presents, but he can’t make it interesting to hear.

The large cast features some names that will become more familiar in the coming years, it is safe to assume. Kaduce works to make Karenina sympathetic, as the condensed nature of an opera libretto flattens much of Tolstoy’s characterization. Christian Van Horn as Anna’s unfortunate husband sings with muted nobility. Robert Gierlach as Vronsky does not have the vocal charisma to suggest the reason’s for Anna’s infatuation, but perhaps live on stage would be a different matter. In smaller roles, Brandon Jovanovich and Sarah Coburn establish attractive vocal identities.

Whether in Carlson’s impatient, hectic music or Graham’s too literal adaptation, the opera Anna Karenina makes the classic mistake of telling, not showing, as the characters and the score always seem to proclaim their feelings without actually conveying them. This would be, then, only for the most committed fans of any contemporary opera, or those already following some of these young singers’ promising careers.

Chris Mullins

[Editor’s Note: Please refer to Kelly Kaduce sings Anna Karenina for an interview of Kelly Kaduce regarding the role of Anna Kareninia.]

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