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David CARLSON (b. 1952)
Anna Karenina (2007)
Opera in two acts. Libretto by Colin Graham after the novel by Leo Tolstoy.
Kelly Kaduce (soprano) –Anna Karenina; Christine Abraham (mezzo-soprano) – Dolly; William Joyner (tenor) – Stiva; Brandon Jovanovich (tenor) – Levin; Josepha Gayer (mezzo-soprano) – Betsy; Robert Gierlach (baritone) – Vronsky; Sarah Coburn (soprano) – Kitty; Nicholas Pallesen (baritone) – Prince Yashvin; Dorothy Byrne (mezzo-soprano) – Countess Lydia Ivanovna; Christian Van Horn (bass-baritone) – Karenin; Rosalind Elias (mezzo-soprano) – Agafia Mikhailovna; David Tate (spoken role) – Seriosha; Kimberly Wibbenmeyer (mezzo-soprano) – Annushka; Mike Dowdy (spoken role) – A doctor; Brad Lewandowsky (spoken role) – Mikhail; Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Stewart Robertson
rec. Loretto-Hilton Center, St. Louis, MO, USA during performances in June 2007
Libretto enclosed
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD154 [72:12 + 67:35]

 

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Prokofiev made a great opera based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a work that is performed every now and then, though it has not become a standard, partly due to the horrifying costs in assembling a cast for the more than seventy roles. To my knowledge no-one else has essayed the same thing and when this recording of David Carlson’s setting of the other great epic by Tolstoy arrived I assumed that it was another first. But I was proved wrong. In 1978 British composer Iain Hamilton (1922-2000) finished an opera in three acts, commissioned by the English National Opera and premiered there in 1981. I don’t know if anything from it has ever been recorded and would be interested if someone knows otherwise. Interestingly the librettist for David Carlson’s opera, Colin Graham, directed Hamilton’s opera at the ENO.

One central problem with turning a novel into an opera libretto is the need to condense the plot, eliminate characters, maybe leave out certain episodes altogether and in the process also lose important messages in the original. Two famous films of Anna Karenina, starring Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh respectively, as well as Hamilton’s operatic version omitted the character Levin, who in fact is Tolstoy’s alter ego and whose Credo becomes the closing lines in Graham’s libretto:

Death may destroy us
And all that we achieve.
But if we learn to know ourselves,
And love each other,
Then there is life in every blade of grass,
In every smile and tear! 

This is a skilful and poetic condensation of Levin’s insight which he puts into words in the final chapter of the novel. It also gives David Carlson the foundation for a truly jubilant orchestral finale with bells, brass and soaring strings in the vein of Tchaikovsky’s 1812, a composition to which there is also a thematic link in this opera since Carlson employs the same liturgical hymn that Tchaikovsky quotes at the beginning of 1812, as his most important leitmotif. The whole opera is tightly constructed with close connections between the different themes. Thus Vronsky’s theme is derived from the second half of Anna’s theme. The music is basically tonal and even though it pours forth in a continuous flow there are many passages where it develops into solos and various kinds of ensembles. The orchestration is flexible and superbly adapted to the dramatic or psychological situations and Carlson’s sense for rhythmic variation makes the score wonderfully alive.

The opera is divided in two acts, each of them is in turn divided in three parts and, apart from Part 3 of the first act, each part is divided in three scenes. Between the three parts of act II there are short orchestral interludes and the scenes and parts are generally seamlessly connected, visually separated through various lighting effects, described in the exhaustive libretto. The prologue of the opera, playing at the railway station in Moscow, is a 3½-minute-long orchestral prelude where the action is mimed. In the absence of the visual images it is a powerful, graphic and evocative opening to the proceedings, and the tension that is built up is retained throughout the performance.

The ball scene (act I, part 1, scene 2) is rhythmically energetic, motoric, depicting frustration rather than joy and the mazurka becomes a dance macabre. Fanfares introduce the first scene of part 3, where the party is at the races, and the horses are galloping in the orchestra. But these are external utterances; at the end of the scene, where Anna reveals to her husband that she loves Vronsky, and in the second scene, with Anna’s death vision, the music follows the inner development so intimately. I could point out many instances where the orchestra is in the midst of the action but I think that these isolated examples will give a fairly vivid picture of the opera. It takes some time before the recitative develops into something like an aria and that is in the middle of the first scene of part 1 in act I where Anna sings I remember, when he first saw you. From then on the score is a wealth of grateful vocal utterances, even though they are not necessarily ‘arias’ that can be extracted from the entirety. Definite highlights are found in the third scene of Part 2 with the meeting between Anna and Vronsky at Karenin’s summer house: Anna’s monologue before Vronsky enters, her Can life be so kind, leading up to the Puccinian phrase Our love together? and then to the inevitable love duet where they sing in unison My heart was dying and only came to life / When I was dancing in your arms. And there are riches to come in the following scenes as well. This is a strong score in every respect and it mediates the essentials of Tolstoy’s novel – and Colin Graham’s masterly libretto – to stunning effect.

Recorded live during performances in St Louis in June 2007 the recording catches the proceedings well. The voices seem a bit distant but no more so than can be expected in the opera house. There are stage noises, hardly disturbing since they also contribute to the sense of actually being there.

The cast is uniformly excellent with Kelly Kaduce an impressive Anna Karenina, radiant and expressive. Christian Van Horn’s dark bass-baritone contrasts well against Robert Gierlach’s brighter Vronsky. The lyrical Sarah Coburn is a fine Kitty and the two tenors, William Joyner and Brandon Jovanovich, as Stiva and Levin, are excellent. The legendary Met star Rosalind Elias, 78 at the time of recording, has retained much of the rounded powerful tone from her heydays, as can be heard in her song in the Epilogue.

This is a modern opera that should be accessible to a wide audience, not only listeners with an inclination towards contemporary music. Tolstoy’s novel is by many regarded as one of the best and most perfectly constructed works ever written and this condensation into an apprehensible opera could very well become a modern classic.

Göran Forsling 

 

 

 


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