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Opera San José Set to Soar With a Lush Anna Karenina

August 23, 2010

Composer David Carlson was watching a rehearsal of his first opera, The Midnight Angel, at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 1993 when Colin Graham, the company’s artistic director, sheepishly walked up, handed him an envelope, and walked away.

The envelope contained a draft of the Anna Karenina libretto that Graham, the esteemed British-born stage director and librettist, had written for a never-composed opera by Benjamin Britten. Graham had attached a note asking Carlson whether he’d consider composing a new work with him, based on Leo Tolstoy’s passionate masterpiece.

“I never thought much about writing an opera about a big, 19th-century novel,” says Carlson, “and my first reaction was, ‘No, thank you.’ It didn’t really speak to me. Then I read what Colin had written and how he’d condensed it all. It was beautiful, and the language was beautiful.”

Carlson embraced the project, but years passed before he and Graham got the backing to fully develop it. Florida Grand Opera commissioned Carlson to compose Anna Karenina to celebrate the opening of the Ziff Opera House in Miami in 2007. Graham had died just a few weeks before the premiere. A hit with critics and audiences — The New York Times reviewer praised Carlson’s “soaring vocal writing” and “romantic and luxuriantly textured music” — the opera receives its West Coast premiere Sept. 11 at Opera San José, in a stylish new production shaped by director Brad Dalton. It opens the company’s 27th season.

Known for presenting the classics and nurturing emerging singers, Opera San José generally steers clear of contemporary works. The South Bay company has done modern pieces every few years, among them Britten’s Turn of the Screw and Robert Ward’s The Crucible, but the audience reaction and ticket sales were not encouraging. Undaunted, Opera San José General Director Irene Dalis, who’d been looking for a new work to present and was enchanted by the DVD of Anna Karenina, decided to roll the dice and mount this $1 million production ($500,000 came from the Carol Franc Buck Foundation).

Trusting Her Audience

“Doing new works is a risk, whatever company it is,” says Dalis, the retired Metropolitan Opera mezzo, who has a marvelously throaty speaking voice. “We shy away from them, unfortunately. But I think our public has become more sophisticated. We’re selling tickets for this. Maybe this will show me we should present more new works.”

Dalis thinks audiences will respond to the vitality and emotion of Carlson’s score, “which combines singing lines with a lot of percussion and rhythm in the orchestra. David has a style all his own. He brings the poignancy and drama and emotion of Tolstoy’s story to life.”

For this production, Carlson and Dalton have tweaked and tightened the cinematic, fast-moving opera, which unfolds in 19 scenes and uses cross-fades and simultaneous sequences in the telling of Tolstoy’s tragic and transcendent story. The opera’s lavish costumes and furniture conjure the world of the 19th-century Russian aristocracy. While Carlson’s score suggests the sound of Tchaikovsky, the American composer’s harmonic language, orchestral colors, and use of extended instrumental techniques, including aleatory passages, come out of the 20th century.

“I evoke the style of Tchaikovsky, which I absorbed into my language,” says Carlson, on the phone from his home in New Haven, Conn. “That took forever,” the composer adds with a laugh. He describes his style as highly chromatic, tonal but with no key signatures, and often featuring “big tunes. You can hum the tunes in most of my music, but particularly in this opera.

“It’s a symphony opera, if that makes any sense. It’s in the world of Strauss and Wagner. Its motion is carried forward by the orchestra, but everybody has their melodies to sing.”

Leading the orchestra will be Maestro Stewart Robertson, who conducted the Florida premiere of Anna Karenina, as well as the second production of the work at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, along with the recording that company made of it with the St. Louis Symphony. Sopranos Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste and Jasmina Halimic, both new to Opera San José’s resident company, will alternate in the role of Anna, the beautiful aristocrat who’s cast out by society because of her adulterous affair with dashing Count Vronsky and who eventually kills herself.

“Going All Tchaikovsky” With the Love Scene

For the San José production, Carlson composed a new scene to flesh out Vronsky’s character and the lovers’ relationship. In the earlier productions, Anna’s pronouncement to Vronsky that she’s pregnant seemed to come out of nowhere.

“We needed a passionate love scene,” says Carlson, who wrote it with the director of the Florida production, Mark Streshinsky. “Vronsky’s drunk and appears at her bedroom window, saying, ‘I can’t live without you’ and begging to be let in. She says, ‘God forgive me,’ and they go at it. It’s only about a four-or five-minute scene, and it was really a blast to write. I thought, ‘I’m really going to ‘go Tchaikovsky’ on this one. The opening sounds just like something he’d write, then it goes back to my writing.”

Carlson, who lived in San Francisco for three decades and ran the San Francisco Symphony’s New and Unusual Music series for several years, traveled to St. Petersburg for inspiration. One of the sounds that captivated him there was the ringing of the bells at Kazan Cathedral, which is in earshot of the actual train station where Tolstoy’s Anna commits suicide. (The opera opens in the station, where a young man throws himself in the path of an oncoming train.)

“Those bells have a unique reverberation and a very unique rhythm,” Carlson says. He also heard a choir in another cathedral singing the “Czar’s Hymn,” which Tchaikovsky used in his “1812” Overture and which Carlson quotes and varies in this piece as a fate motif. The bells figure prominently in the train station scene where Anna goes mad. Carlson also wrote a “creepy-crawly” laudanum motif to signal Anna’s addiction to sleep-inducing morphine. He describes this aleatory pizzicato string passage as a sort of “funny Lutoslawski-like haze.”

Unlike the famous film versions of Anna Karenina, the opera focuses equally on the novel’s other love story: the one between Kitty, the youngest sister of Anna’s sister-in-law, Dolly, and Levin, the soulful, introspective young landowner whom Tolstoy based largely on himself. Kitty will be sung in San José by former resident company soprano Khori Dastoor, with tenors Alexander Boyer and Michael Dailey alternating as Levin.

Those central characters were missing from the 1981 Anna Karenina opera by the late British composer Ian Hamilton. Graham, who’d directed that opera, told Carlson that Hamilton had basically reduced the story to “dancing and more dancing, love duets and suicide.”

“Achingly Beautiful” Epiphany

For Dalton, who directed Così fan tutte and Madama Butterfly at San José and has directed at the Met, San Francisco, and Washington operas, “Anna and Levin are both people who refuse to compromise, who want authenticity in their lives,” he says. “Being a woman, she can only be crushed. He’s really Tolstoy. The most beautiful scene in the opera — the one that makes my heart ache — is the final scene when he has an epiphany. The music is gorgeous. It’s inspired. I asked David how he wrote all that music for Kitty and Levin, and he said, ‘I’ve lived it.’”

In Florida and St. Louis, this technically demanding opera was staged with a double-turntable. There are no turntables or blackouts in this fluid production.

“Scenes have to fly in and out, and people move in and out. Things just transform in front of your eyes,” says Dalton, whose production team includes New York set designer Steven C. Kemp and lighting designer Kent Dorsey. “Only what’s necessary is there.” For the famous ball scene, that means a mirrored wall, a chandelier, eight plush red chairs, and a handful of servants.

“We use every second of music to create an image,” Dalton says. He likens this complex production to a Broadway show, describing the pace as “go-go-go. It’s unbelievable. I don’t think the audience will be bored for a second. You don’t have time to get bored.”

Dalis is keeping her fingers crossed. Asked if we can expect to see more new works in San José, she wryly replies: “Ask me when we’re finished with this one.”

Jesse Hamlin has written for The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications over the past 30 years on a wide range of music and art, covering jazz musicians and symphonic conductors, sculptors, poets, and architects. He has also written for The New York Times, Art & Auction and Columbia magazines, as well as liner notes for CDs by Stan Getz and Cal Tjader.