Thursday, June 07, 2007

Love and Death

[This is the text of my review of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of Anna Karenina for KDHX-FM in St. Louis.]

This seems to be the Year of Fallen Women at Opera Theatre. Hard on the high heels of a stellar La Traviata comes an equally stunning production of David Carlson's Anna Karenina. Both operas revolve around heroines who sacrifice all for love and pay dearly for it in terms of social ostracism and an early demise. Dramatically, however, they're worlds apart. Traviata, for all its strengths, is clearly the product of late 19-century sensibilities. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, is a masterful re-interpretation of those sensibilities for early 21st-century audiences.

The libretto is the valedictory work of the late Colin Graham, Opera Theatre's Artistic Director. It's a grand finale for a long and illustrious career, beautifully illustrating the dramatic and philosophical dimensions of the story. In his program notes, Graham criticizes earlier stage and film adaptations of what is generally considered Tolstoy's most personal novel for short-changing the character of Levin, who poses the novel's central questions about the meaning of life. Graham's adaptation restores Levin - who is generally considered a self-portrait of Tolstoy - to his proper place, restoring the appropriate gravitas to what is otherwise a tragic and somewhat sordid love story.

That story centers on two love narratives - one ascending into light and the other descending into darkness and death. The former is that of Levin and Kitty, the latter that of Anna and Count Vronsky.

Married to the solid but work-obsessed bureaucrat Alexei Karenin, Anna finds herself attracted to the dashing and somewhat self-centered Vronsky. When she finds herself pregnant with Vronsky's child, her marriage disintegrates followed, eventually, by her relationship with Vronsky, which can't stand up to the pressures of social ostracism and Anna's slow descent into madness and drug addiction. Meanwhile, Levin's love for Kitty (the sister of Anna's sister-in-law, Dolly) survives initial rejection and is finally returned. As Levin's life blossoms and Anna's withers, he constantly searches for meaning in the bewildering mix of sorrow and joy that swirls around him. In the end it falls to his young wife and old nurse Agafia to open his eyes - the former by showing him the smile on his baby son's face and the latter by reminding him that “we cannot all be saints, but we can learn to love our neighbors, and to be loved”.

“To love another person is to see the face of God”, as they sing at the end of Les Miserables.

Graham's libretto moves through the complex story with a cinematic clarity and grace, so it's only appropriate that David Carlson's neo-romantic score often has the openly descriptive character of a really great film soundtrack. It's a quality that I noted - and admired - in his previous work for Opera Theatre, 1993's Midnight Angel. The final pages, as Levin embraces life and his family, are positively luminous. Let's hope it finds a permanent place in the repertory.

Superior words and music, of course, can easily be undone by an inferior cast - which is most certainly not the case here. Soprano Kelly Kaduce adds to her previous Opera Theatre successes with an exemplary performance in the demanding title role, which includes passion, madness and not one but two death scenes. Equally impressive is bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Karenin. Graham and Carlson have given the character some intensely moving scenes, and Van Horn makes the most of them. The opening night audience apparently agreed, judging from the response to his curtain call.

Tenor Brandon Javonovich, who was such a splendid Essex in Gloriana two years ago, is in fine form as Levin. Being the bearer of the Author's Message can be quite a challenge for an actor, but Javonovich rises to it.

Sopranos Christine Abraham and Sarah Coburn are also excellent as the forgiving Dolly, married to Anna's infidelity-prone brother Stiva, and the sadder but wiser (to say nothing of happier) Kitty. Abraham made her debut with OTSL in Midnight Angel - where she played the title role - so it only seems fitting that she should return now.

Bass-baritone Robert Gierlach and tenor William Joyner are vocally strong as Vronsky and Stiva, but not entirely convincing dramatically. Joyner, in particular, is prone to a certain stiffness which, combined with his height and moustache, conjured up images of John Cleese in his Monty Python days. Two of the smallest roles, however, get the best performances of the evening, both from mezzo-sopranos. Dorothy Byrne is the very embodiment of self-congratulatory moral sadism as Countess Lydia Ivanova and Metropolitan Opera veteran Rosalind Elias is all earthy wisdom as Agafia, who puts everything in perspective at the end.

Stewart Robertson conducted what sounded to me, at least, like a polished and sympathetic reading of the score that only rarely threatened to drown the singers. Stage Director Mark Streshinsky keeps the action flowing seamlessly through the many changes of scene, aided by Neil Patel minimalist sets, which use a small number of easily-moved items to firmly fix each separate time and place. Mark McCullough's lighting is very effective as well, providing everything from a golden glow for Levin's pastoral home to a blinding spotlight for Anna's suicide by locomotive.

Opera Theatre's Anna Karenina is, in short, another winner - which makes Graham's absence all the more poignant. This was, after all, a nearly life-long project, having started out as collaboration with the late Benjamin Britten in 1968. Still, he died doing what he loved. We should all be so lucky.

Anna Karenina continues through June 21st in rotating repertory at the Loretto-Hilton Center. For ticket information, you may call 314-961-0644 or visit the web site. While you're at it, consider tickets for the Colin Graham tribute concert that Opera Theatre is presenting on June 19th. Performers will include Christine Brewer, Sylvia McNair and other Opera Theatre artists along with members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. The concert will benefit the Colin Graham Master Artists Endowment Fund.

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