Opera Reviews
23 March 2019
Untitled Document

Anna Karenina has the sweep of an epic film

by Michael Vaughn
Carlson: Anna Karenina
Opera San Jose
11 September 2010

Photo: Pat KirkOpera San Jose launched its 27th season with one of the more lavish productions in its history, the third-ever production of David Carlson's Anna Karenina. The opening night performance featured stunning turns by soprano Jasmina Halimic as Anna and bass Kirk Eichelberger as her husband, Alexei Karenin. With the flying sets of Steven C. Kemp and an expert job of personnel movement by stage director Brad Dalton, the opera created the sweep and smoothness of an epic film.

The film feeling begins with Carlson himself, whose score feels very much like a soundtrack. The music is utterly at the service of the drama, and the vocal lines often feel like illustrated dialogue, as if you were just talking with a neighbor and your words took flight. The approach is completely tonal, and the long measures of dialogue are like arching waves, giving the production as a whole the sensation of a rolling ship. Carlson is also fond of going the illustrative route, conveying the drive of a tense horse-racing scene in galloping rhythms for both singers and instruments. Scenes of mania are often portrayed with musical fragments, flying across the pit like pieces of broken glass (particularly in the pizzicato storm of Anna's "To die would be so easy"). Stewart Robertson, long associated with Carlson's work, led the orchestra in a sterling account of a difficult score.

The libretto has some pretty regal roots. British librettist Colin Graham wrote the original draft for Benjamin Britten, but the project, aimed at a Bolshoi Opera premiere, was cancelled when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Graham's final version is a masterful compression, and a vast improvement on Tolstoy's novel, which is too often weighed down by philosophizing. In fact, the opera's first act is so quickly paced that it leaves its spectators sitting on the edges of their seats, as if they were watching a Hitchcock film.

Carlson's vocal writing is so naturalistic that it makes describing the voices rather challenging. The first thing that one notices about Jasmina Halimic is that she simply looks the part, owing to her dark features and Bosnian background. The second thing is her vibrato, which is absolutely perfect. She brings out the alluring quality of extended lines, notably the sustained vowels that meander back and forth like over wide trills, and handles several alarming top notes with aplomb. It's also fascinating to watch her navigate a lengthy unaccompanied passage in Act 2 while sitting with her back to the audience, looking into a mirrored screen. The best feature of Halimic's acting is the subtlety of the gestures she uses to portray Anna's growing depression. This is how a noblewoman loses her mind - with taste.

San Jose opera fans already know the power and sureness of Kirk Eichelberger's bass, but what really impresses here is his acting. One of the liveliest Leporellos I've ever seen, Eichelberger takes all that charisma and turns it inside-out, making of Alexei Karenin a black hole of a personality. His first monologue, "What is the shadow in her eye?," is a brooding, coldly calculating appraisal, serving notice of two things: that the composer will use set pieces, and that Karenin will be the most strangely intriguing character in the piece.

A welcome lighter side is delivered by tenor Christopher Bengochea as Stiva Oblonsky and mezzo Betany Coffland as his wife Dolly. Both bring a much-needed element of humor and humanity, and Bengochea (who has always played tragic tenors) shows a special talent as a wise guy. Baritone Krassen Karagiozov does a wonderful job as the other man, Vronsky, loving Anna so intensely that he succeeds in driving himself to collapse.

Providing another kind of light is our second couple, tenor Michael Dailey as Konstantin Levin and soprano Khori Dastoor as Kitty Scherbatsky. Their Act 2 reunion is the tear-jerker of the evening, and it's a pleasure to hear Dailey's voice continue to mature and widen out.

The plasticity of the blocking is made possible by Steven C. Kemp's sets - flats and screens that are constantly flying in and out. Many of them are simply evocations, like the Manet-like panels of color that signify the changes of the seasons. The Russian costumes were dazzling, particularly Anna's first-scene dress of silver, black and burgundy (costume designer Elizabeth Poindexter).

A couple of minor players give rather pivotal performances. Mezzo Megan Stetson adds a bit of drunken wit at her balls (which are simply packed with breakups and proposals!). Ballet San Jose's Peter Hershey gives a compelling performance as the train-suicide - especially in the jarring, athletic replay of Anna's dream (choreographer Lise la Cour).

Which brings up a final complaint. The final, inevitable image of Anna walking into the light of the train is so iconic and striking, so darkly beautiful, that it should be the final thing we see. The epilogue with Levin and Kitty is a clumsy, tacked-on stab at redemption. If this means I'm criticizing Leo himself, then so be it.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic. His novel, "Operaville," will be released this winter, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis. Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," available at amazon.com.
Text © Michael Vaughn
Photo © Pat Kirk
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