David Carlson’s opera Anna Karenina to a libretto by Colin Graham, which premiered at the Florida Grand Opera three weeks after Graham’s death in April, could serve as an epitaph for an illustrious career. As a project originally conceived for Benjamin Britten, it reflects Graham’s service to that composer’s operas as a producer and to new opera generally. Anna’s current venue at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis crowns his long association there as artistic director. And as an opera based on Tolstoy, it recalls one of his greatest productions, Prokofiev’s War and Peace for the English National Opera in London.
Graham’s conviction that an 800-page novel could be boiled down to a 2½-hour opera (excluding interval) was not misplaced, but the task was great. Wisely, the focus is on two couples – Anna and her adulterous lover Vronsky, and Levin and Kitty. Graham and Carlson make every minute count, as does Mark Streshinsky’s fast-moving staging, abetted by a turntable that facilitates a cinematic flow.
Carlson underlies the dialogue with a Janácek-like orchestral tapestry of inventive motivic content that proves capable of blossoming into expansive lyrical pieces. And his gift for expressive melody deepens scenes such as the moving one in which Anna lies near death while her husband Karenin and Vronsky almost patch up their differences. Some will be concerned that his highly polished neo-romantic score, excellently realised here under Stewart Robertson, largely turns its back on anything modernistic. But perhaps the real problem with Anna Karenina is that it moves too fast for its own good. Without a more detailed psychological picture of Anna, you’re left wondering whether her suicide under a locomotive is the only answer to her problems.
In any case, Kelly Kaduce gives a ravishing, lustrously sung performance that captures Anna’s beauty, intelligence and despair. The role of Vronsky could have been better fleshed out, but Robert Gierlach sings it handsomely. Christian Van Horn makes Karenin surprisingly sympathetic. Sarah Coburn shines as Kitty, and Brandon Jovanovich’s gleaming tenor makes Levin an apt mouthpiece for Tolstoy’s musings on life. The ageless Rosalind Elias sings the nurse Agafia. All look resplendent in Robert Perdziola’s period costumes.
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