Anna Karenina

The production, a milestone for Florida opera, offers a deeper dimension to Tolstoy's oft-told story of a fallen woman.

Published May 6, 2007


Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is a perennial bombshell for its saga of infidelity among the Russian aristocracy.

Anna, the doomed heroine, leaves her high-ranking bureaucrat husband to take up with a dashing military officer, Count Vronsky. Ostracized by St. Petersburg society and denied permission to see her 10-year-old son, she commits suicide.

At least four movies, including the 1935 classic with Greta Garbo, dwell on the disastrous consequences of forbidden love, to the exclusion of almost everything else in Tolstoy's sprawling novel, published in 1877. Now comes a new opera that is no less tragic - Anna still throws herself under a train - but also seeks to accomplish a more subtle task.

Anna Karenina, with music by David Carlson and a libretto by the late Colin Graham, was premiered by Florida Grand Opera on April 28 at the new Carnival Center for the Performing Arts. The $2-million production was a rare event for the opera company just its third world premiere in 66 years, as well as an important milestone for the center, having been commissioned by the company for its first season there. The premiere was postponed several years as construction delays and cost overruns mounted at the lavish $473-million complex in downtown Miami.

Somewhat daringly for the primary-colored art form of opera, the almost three-hour work (including intermission) is as much a meditation on ideas such as forgiveness and tolerance of human frailty as the melodrama of a fallen woman. But there is also enough passionate music to bring out the best from the first-rate cast.

True to the book

Graham, whose interest in Anna Karenina goes back to a sketch of the libretto he did many years ago at the urging of Benjamin Britten, was scheduled to direct the premiere. However, he died of heart failure at 75 in early April as the company went into rehearsal.

The influence of Graham, who chose Carlson to compose the opera some 14 years ago, remains decisive, as his staging was carried out by director Mark Streshinky.

As the librettist wrote in a program note, he had long been distressed that most stage and screen adaptations of the book (even the 1981 opera by British composer Iain Hamilton that Graham directed) gave short shrift to Tolstoy's philosophical message. Both the Garbo and Vivien Leigh movies omitted the character that represented the novelist, a restless young truth seeker named Levin.

In Graham's libretto, the downward spiral of Anna, Vronsky and Anna's husband, Karenin, is paralleled by the initially troubled but ultimately blissful relationship of Levin and a princess, Kitty. This achieves the aim of restoring Tolstoy's ideas to Anna Karenina but also leads to occasional preachiness (as in the epilogue following Anna's death) that undercuts the dramatic punch of the opera.

Carlson's score is most effective in scenes of forgiveness. Early in the first act, Anna, in a coloratura aria sensationally sung by Kelly Kaduce, foreshadows her own plight in asking her sister-in-law Dolly to forgive the infidelities of her husband, Anna's brother, Stiva: "For the sake of all those summer days - Can you not forgive?" In Act 2, when Anna is near death after miscarrying Vronsky's child, her husband falls to his knees to offer a prayer of forgiveness for Anna and her lover, bass-baritone Christian Van Horn's sterling singing buoyed up on a long crescendo in the orchestra.

A splendid cast

Musically, Anna Karenina is not flashy, but the score has a kind of symphonic progression that does an artful job of supporting the narrative, which is broken up into 18 relatively brief scenes. It is built around leitmotifs that are recycled throughout the score, sometimes to numbing effect, such as the twittering winds that suggest Anna's state of mind over and over.

Carlson, who has two other operas to his credit, wrote the title role with Kaduce in mind, and the soprano gave a brilliant account of Anna's downfall. Several scenes in which Anna steps outside an ensemble to reveal her innermost thoughts were riveting, such as the breakdown she suffers at a race in which her lover is injured in a fall from his horse. The surreal climax is Anna's drug-induced mad scene in the train station.

Unfortunately, Kaduce was paired with the blandly suave Vronsky of baritone Robert Gierlach, who turned in the least engaging performance among the principals. Otherwise, the casting was splendid, with tenor Brandon Jovanovich's Levin especially impressive. Van Horn was sympathetic in the torturous role of the cuckolded husband, entreating his tempestuous wife to behave with discretion, if nothing else, in an oddly moving Act 1 aria .

Soprano Sarah Coburn brought flair to the ingenue, Kitty. As Levin's wise old housekeeper, Agafia, mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias was the Tolstoyan mouthpiece for some of the opera's more heavy-handed moralizing, which she sang superbly. Tenor William Joyner was a suitably carefree and thoughtless Stiva, and mezzo-soprano Christine Abraham was persuasive as his long-suffering wife, Dolly.

Stewart Robertson, the company's music director, conducted the orchestra, which had the same instrumentation (plus vibraphone) as Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. The set by Neil Patel was stark and spare, consisting of eight columns supporting four arches and panels covered by cursive writing. It looked striking in Mark McCullough's lighting. Robert Perdziola's costumes were models of 19th century opulence, like a dazzling white ball gown that Anna wore.

Anna Karenina will have a chance to develop, as it is going to be performed, with essentially the same cast and creative team, at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June. There also will be a production by Michigan Opera Theatre. Carlson said in an interview that he expected to make changes in the score after the Miami run.

The Ziff Ballet Opera House, which has four tiers in the traditional horseshoe shape, is a comfortable space, decorated in earth tones, and the acoustics were good from the orchestra section. The 2, 400-seat hall was virtually full for Anna Karenina, with a more diverse audience than is usual for an opera premiere.

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.


Anna Karenina

The Florida Grand Opera production has performances at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Friday and 2 p.m. May 13 at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, Miami. $10-$200. Toll-free 1-800-741-1010; www.fgo.org.