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Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is a masterwork of nineteenth-century literature; a parable on the struggle for personal freedom against the conventions of a hostile society, played out in a tragic love-story. With a libretto by the distinguished director Colin Graham after the novel by Leo Tolstoy, David Carlson's opera vividly captures the drama and message of the original work. This double-album set is a premiere recording of the opera, with commanding performances from members of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stewart Robertson.
Colin Graham, Anna Karenina’s librettist, who from his deathbed conceived and created the world première production with stage director Mark Streshinsky, had to pare down this densely constructed novel to its essence in order to provide a structure that works dramatically, using the triangle of Anna, her husband Karenin, and her lover Vronsky, but equally importantly the contrasting story of Levin, the young man from the country (Tolstoy modelled Levin’s character after himself), and Kitty, his future wife. Anna’s brother Stiva and his wife, Dolly, provide yet another counterpart to the worries of these couples. Levin’s housekeeper, Agafia, takes on the weight of an assortment of wise peasants in Tolstoy’s novel. But it is the portrayal of the doomed Anna in her tumultuous relationships with her husband and her lover, contrasted with the struggles of Levin to accommodate to the sorrows and joys of life, that make this work a natural choice for dramatisation.
Anna Karenina is David Carlson’s third opera. The creation of a new opera is a huge collaborative project involving many hands. In this case, Florida Grand Opera’s music director, Stewart Robertson, had long been interested in Carlson’s music, which he first encountered in 1989 when judging the Santa Fe Symphony’s New Music Competition, in which Carlson’s Cello Concerto No 1 took first prize. Maestro Robertson later conducted the premiere of Carlson’s first commissioned opera, The Midnight Angel, in 1993 for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and his second, Dreamkeepers, for the Utah Opera. Colin Graham for along time had an interest in translating Anna Karenina into an opera. The opening of the Carnival Center (now the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County) provided FGO with the opportunity to bring composer, librettist and company together. Florida Grand Opera, under General Director Robert M. Heuer, commissioned the work to celebrate the première season of the Ziff Opera House.
David Carlson said of working with Colin Graham: “One of the things that made working with Colin so satisfying was his complete understanding of the complexities of shaping a libretto. It is not a play set to music. Instead a libretto must contain opportunities for duets, quartets, and various other vocal combinations, all of which must be specified. The whole drama must be distilled down to its very essence both in the plot material and in the actual words. Colin’s libretto for Anna Karenina is a marvel, and proved to be deeply inspiring.”
For Carlson, the music for Anna Karenina germinated over several years. The novel is one of his favourites, and he has reread it several times since his teens. For him, although the plot itself certainly appealed directly, it was the character development, and the way that Tolstoy captured each person’s choices though their own perspectives, that captivated him. Unlike the depictions in most of the films, there are no villains. The opera—like the novel—is sympathetic to all the characters.
Carlson felt it was important that the listener empathise with Anna, even as we watch her long, slow decline, and through the course of the opera her music is characterised by marked sweetness in the beginning, becomes increasingly agitated, and culminates in tragedy. Carlson thought about Anna for three years before writing a note. “What is this music going to be? What is the tinta?” (Verdi’s term for the colour and character of a scene or an opera). Carlson spent time in Russia absorbing sounds and colours, which found their way into his score: for example the bells of St. Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral are heard, as well as Orthodox hymns. These are not literally quoted, but composed through the lens of Carlson’s own musical voice, which, from time to time, gives a loving nod to Russian composers of the past two centuries. What has emerged is a passionately expressive score—one with musical ideas (Leitmotivs) that identify and elucidate characters and themes—and an opera with its own distinctive sound world.
The opera is structured in two acts, each divided into three parts. The opera opens with a Prologue and concludes with an Epilogue. In the second act, the scenes start to get shorter, to compress, and propel the action forward. The opera opens with an important theme which recurs at pivotal moments in the drama. This music is Carlson’s version of a traditional Russian liturgical melody, The Czar’s Hymn (Tchaikovsky used it at the opening of his 1812 Overture), which we first hear in the woodwinds. This theme represents Tolstoy’s biblical motto, which prefaces the novel, whose message reverberates throughout the story. For example, when Anna tells her husband of her illicit affair with Vronsky, it is as if the weight of the world has been lifted, and the hymn is heard in celestial form with high flutes, harp and celesta; at the moment Anna realises her salvation will be suicide, the hymn is heard in full orchestra with great force.
Anna’s Theme—lyrical, soaring, yet tinged with melancholy—conveys the passion associated with her character, and is used in many configurations throughout the work. The second half of Anna’s Theme becomes Vronsky’s Theme, and as Anna and Vronsky grow apart, so does the melody, Vronsky’s becoming a discrete tune in his Act II aria.
All the themes are interrelated like a family, but the contrasts between the music for Anna/Vronsky and Levin/Kitty are maintained through various forms of development.
Just as Tolstoy did not end his novel with the death of Anna but with Levin’s final coming to terms with his existence—and the birth in him of some sense of order in which he can believe—Graham’s libretto hones in on Levin’s epiphany as the take-home lesson of how to live a life. In Anna’s case, her attempt to be true to her heart, her nature, led her inexorably to a place where she could not live. Levin, fighting the same battle to find a place in the world where he can live and love at peace with himself, succeeds.
Lucie Spieler © 2007
Do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be at peace with all. Do not look for revenge. But leave room for the wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, “I will repay.” [Romans 12: 10 - 19]
“I, not you.”
The quotation has two important functions. It is the answer to all Kostya Levin’s questions about the meaning of life, as paraphrased by the wise old Agafia at the end of the story; and its revenge motif informs Karenin’s “punishment” of Anna, Anna’s of Vronsky, and Society’s of those who refuse or are unable to live by its dictates, all of which lead to Anna’s tragic end.
As the character of Levin is in many ways a self-portrait of Tolstoy, it is interesting to note that the author, seeking in his own life the same answers as his fictional character, turned away from agnosticism to become a believer before he wrote this novel, reflecting his own conversion.
Anna Karenina’s two parallel stories illustrate and illuminate each other—what begins as positive in one relationship and ends negative is reversed in the other. The changing trajectories of the stories bring home the meaning of the epigraph that Tolstoy placed after the title (Whose vengeance? Karenin’s? Anna’s? God’s?); but like his characters, we are not to judge, only watch and learn: There is only one solution—clemency and love. Caught in the whirlwind of life, Anna obeys the life-force but perishes. Her empty existence as Karenin’s wife has dulled her spirit, and slowly her fine mind is consumed by the madness of her passion for Vronsky. One cannot build one’s happiness on the sorrows of others, and Anna sacrifices both husband and son. After a period of blissful, reckless happiness, her doubts and jealousies torture her. She takes morphia to dull the bitter suffering that eventually throws her under a train.
Karenin, the bureaucrat, his intelligence masked with irony in a narrow mind, is a man afraid to listen to his own heart. One can understand why Anna is attracted to Vronsky, who is passionate, honest, and self-centered—in every way other than in his devotion to Anna—whom disaster overtakes only because he listens to his heart. These three become simple and good for one brief moment, when Anna lies at the point of death, but thereafter find themselves compelled to do the evil that the world considers the proper thing.
Levin, the other main protagonist of the novel, the simple boy from the country, is the antithesis of both Vronsky and Karenin. Tortured by the struggle between reason and heart, he attacks the hypocrisy of society. Although the star of his love for Kitty ascends while Anna’s descends, for a time he too hastens toward destruction. He cannot reconcile the ironies of love, life, and death: Man’s greatest hopes and efforts seem always to be defeated by death. His dilemma is only solved through the words of his old nurse, who shows him with her simple wisdom that the best way to live is to live without fear or envy of others: 'We cannot all be saints, but we can learn to love our neighbours, and be loved.' Life is everything. He realises that he has learnt nothing from reason—all has been revealed by the heart.
I had been haunted for many years by certain aspects of Tolstoy’s amazing work; I was distressed that the two most famous movie versions (starring Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh) omitted the characters and philosophies that informed the story with Tolstoy’s 'message,' particularly the Tolstoyan Levin and his search for the meaning of life. Equally guilty in this respect was another operatic version of the book, Iain Hamilton’s opera, which I directed for English National Opera in the early 1980s. This last event galvanized me into continuing my efforts to create a libretto that managed to encapsulate the whole story in a realistic time-frame for an opera. Operas take a long time to write these days. And, as we all know, new opera houses take a long time to get built. So postponements (like the one in Miami) gave the authors more time and more frustration before both opera house and opera were happily completed. It gave David Carlson time to assess more clearly what alterations he would like from me—and some alterations I asked from him: change this bit into an aria, this bit into a duet; this is too long, this is too short; the inflection isn’t right here; we need a couple of extra syllables to make this phrase work with the music. It has been the very happiest collaboration, and now the characters live through words and music.
Nasdrovie and spasebo bolshoi to all concerned.
Colin Graham © 2007
At a New Year’s ball at Princess Betsy’s in St. Petersburg, Kitty, Dolly’s sister, is infatuated with Vronsky and refuses Levin’s proposal of marriage. Vronsky’s too-obvious attentions compromise Anna and, although she is attracted, she resists him. Anna’s husband insists that she try to maintain appearances, but discovers that her heart is locked against him.
The following spring, Dolly tries to persuade her sister Kitty that Vronsky is not worthy of her, and asks about her feelings for Levin. Levin himself is unable to take comfort, even from life as reborn in the spring. Stiva brings him news of Kitty and of Vronsky’s dangerous infatuation with Anna.
At the Karenins’ country house, Anna reveals to Vronsky that she will bear his child. He tries to persuade her to leave her husband but she refuses because the law would take away her son Seriosha. Vronsky suffers a severe accident at the races and Anna is distraught, but Karenin insists that she behave properly. She tells him that she cannot bear the sight of him—she loves Vronsky. Karenin still hopes to preserve his marriage; he must at all costs preserve his reputation. He insists that she return to him and continue as before. He will not consider a divorce. Anna must choose between her lover and her son. She tells Vronsky of her recurring death-dream, connected with the accident at the station. He cannot comfort her, and she suspects him of selfishness when he again urges her to go away with him. She begs Karenin to give her her son, but—consumed with rage—he refuses.
In the Admiralty Gardens in St. Petersburg, Levin cannot reconcile the ironies of life and longs for death. Dolly insists that he meet Kitty at their house. Stiva learns with horror from Karenin of his impending divorce from Anna and begs him to talk to Dolly. Yashvin tries to persuade Vronsky to give up Anna for the sake of his career, but he refuses. Meeting at the Oblonskys’ for the first time since Betsy’s ball, Levin and Kitty are both very moved. Karenin is angered by talk of unfaithful wives and luckless husbands, and Dolly cannot persuade him to forgive. Levin and Kitty declare their love during a game of solitaire and Stiva is delighted. Karenin comes home to find Anna near death after a miscarriage. He is reconciled to Vronsky at her bed-side and promises forgiveness. Levin is now happily married to Kitty, who is pregnant, but he remains dissatisfied with his useless and unproductive life — exemplified by news from Dolly that Anna, now recovered, has left Karenin for Vronsky and that Seriosha is with his aunt Lydia.
Anna asks Karenin’s permission to see Seriosha one last time on his birthday. Lydia urges Karenin to forbid this and, against his better judgment, he does so. Anna forces her way into her son’s bedroom. He had been told she was dead, and is overjoyed to see her. He cannot know that this is the last time he will see her; he is distraught when she has to leave. In her rooms at a hotel Anna, now addicted to opiates, is at the end of her tether. She doubts Vronsky’s fidelity and is haunted by death. She is like a train hurtling to destruction. When Dolly and Stiva bring Levin to meet her, they are appalled at her condition; Levin is moved by this beautiful, sad woman. Left alone with Vronsky, her jealousy leads to a desperate quarrel.
Vronsky leaves to visit his mother, and Anna fears he is leaving her forever. She contemplates an overdose of morphia and instead decides to follow him to the station to beg forgiveness. At the station, everything passes like a dream. Having missed Vronsky, Anna waits to follow him on the next train. She reviews the tortured life before her, and realises, as if a light had suddenly illumined her soul, that death would release her from its pain and responsibility. When the train arrives, she throws herself beneath it.
Later, after Anna’s death, Levin at his country estate in the spring cannot come to terms with the irony of life. Then, through the wisdom of his old nurse, he at last understands the reason for living: to live, love, and be loved; not to judge or envy others, nor to bewail their suffering; to accept life is everything in itself. His blind eyes have been opened.
Signum Classics © 2007