Comfy With the Hoity-Toity
By the end of the first act of David Carlson's new operatic adaptation of Anna Karenina, I couldn't wait to get home and excoriate the bastard in print. Oh, the nerve of that man, reducing all the subtle shadings of Tolstoy's novel to this dreary, deadening drone of diminished chords, those half-finished melodic ideas, that weird and static noise. I was mad pissed! I should have been nervous, watching these characters flail about in search of happiness and doomed to find only misery and death. Instead, I was sitting, sulking, waiting for a song or even just some sign that David Carlson or conductor Stewart Robinson or somebody down there in the orchestra pit or up on stage had ever felt any recognizably human emotion, beyond all the constipated anxiety summoned up by Carlson's meandering, soul-sucking chord progressions. I didn't think they had. Florida Grand Opera, in an effort to save money, had apparently dispensed with human beings and was now in the business of putting on operas by and for robots.
That was the end of the first act. By the end of the second, I wanted to accost David Carlson backstage and spend a few hours kissing his feet. It wasn't just that the second act was infinitely stronger than the first; it's also a question of getting into Carlson's particular sensibility, which takes a bit of doing.
Provided you don't sit around listening to 20th-century opera all day (and who does?), you're probably interested in arias that do what arias used to do: present pretty, conventionally dynamic melodies in front of a bunch of florid orchestration, build to some kind of Earth-rending high note or otherwise sensible resolution, and then get on with things. You want your arias to come thick and fast, and they better be hummable. Songy-type song-songs are good, singspiels are good, and gangs of armed thugs will not break into composers' homes and beat their children if they occasionally want to rock a straight-up major chord or three. Not that people shouldn't keep on getting all inspired by Tristan and Ariadne and Moses & Aaron and that whole antipop lineage by all means, if that's your bag, go with it. But c'mon, composers: You also dig Norma. You probably also dig Abbey Road and Brian Wilson. Admit it; let it show.
David Carlson doesn't let it show, at least not here. A few minutes into Anna Karenina, we find ourselves at a New Year's Party, 1875. People are doing party-type things, and there is much innocent flirtation and thwarted infatuation, leading to a kind of hang-dog, lemme-cry-in-my-Stoli-style dejection on the part of Levin (Brandon Jovanovich). It is not an especially grim situation merely depressing in that way that drunken New Year's Eve parties can be depressing. But the music is claustrophobic. Every time you expect it to achieve liftoff, it falls backward into those diminished chords and their go-nowhere progressions. I thought, Ooooh! A portent of doom! Yet it wasn't a portent: It was a steady state to be maintained by the opera until intermission, a dramatic tension not built but sustained. It's all very interesting from a technical perspective, but is it interesting from the perspective of Mr. Joe Opera Fan? Nope.
At least, not at first. Tolstoy wrote a big book, and one can feel librettist/director Colin Graham (longtime luminary of opera and theater, collaborator of Benjamin Britten and artistic polymath, who died one month ago) struggling to get in all that necessary exposition before intermission. You've got a lot of contending love stories, and there is a chance that you cannot wrap all of this in engaging song and still clock in at an hour and a half.
Anyway, it doesn't matter a whit: Act two roars up and promptly blows your tits off. Yes, blows your tits off. That's what it feels like, so powerful is this music. What in the first act were ominous, restless soundscapes now become the sounds of earthworks, of tectonic plates bashing together and spewing magma. It still ain't catchy, but it's damned commanding. And the singing gets amped too. Suddenly, Carlson's weird, counterintuitive vocal lines seem pointed, purposeful, immensely dramatic, every note keyed in to the tumult of the characters' inner lives.
Act two begins sweetly, a walk through an autumn garden while tenor Jovanovich makes a lot of lovely noise about his existential angst and perpetual love-hunger. Not much is sweet thereafter, as we witness Anna's hospitalization after a miscarriage, her subsequent estrangement from her husband, her son, and Vronsky; her meltdown and death. There is an ethereal gorgeousness to the opera's final moments, when Jovanovich sings Karenina's final aria, but that's arithmetic, the tying up of loose ends. Act two is mostly a horror show, and its success is thanks to Kelly Kaduce as much as anybody.
Kaduce's Anna tends to take it easy in the first act; in the second, she's something like a force of nature. She has a bizarrely dramatic high tessitura whenever she blasts into her upper register, grown men clutch their breasts and shellac peels off the opera house's doors. The role is absurdly demanding, revealing a deep masochistic streak on the parts of Messrs. Carlson and Graham, who force her to sing virtually nonstop for two and a half hours at high volume. By the time she's wandering, crazy and alone, through the train station in St. Petersburg, moments from death, you've gotta wonder if the pain in her voice is a dramatic affectation or the sound of someone about to hawk up a larynx. But the sound is clear, beautiful in its lower and middle registers and galvanizing up top if it sounds like she's working for it, you don't mind.
She's one of a gaggle of fine singers assembled for Anna Karenina. Sarah Coburn's Kitty is presented in full, golden voice. Christian van Horn's Karenin produces a wide sound that does to ears what dark chocolate does to palates. And Jovanovich is probably one of the most exciting tenors in the world right now, with a massive, bright voice that veritably drips pathos.
Carlson's music never ceases to be mysterious and even a little confounding, but the entire movement of Anna Karenina feels like a slow drive toward transparency toward revelation. With that in mind, I do believe I'll be going again, to take another stab at that first act. A willful disregard for old-school tunishness and public tastes have confined many a powerful opera to the haute-cultural ghetto, but that ghetto is sometimes a pretty interesting place to be.
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