Opera San José’s Ambitious Anna Karenina

Georgia Rowe on September 13, 2010

Works of fiction that become operas often suffer some degree of degradation in the translation. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for example, is generally acknowledged a masterpiece: Dostoyevsky called it “flawless as a work of art.” Yet David Carlson’s opera Anna Karenina seems destined to go down in operatic history as a valiant attempt, at best.

Carlson’s 2007 adaptation, which made its West Coast premiere Saturday evening as the first production of Opera San José’s 27th season, represents an ambitious leap for the company, which has earned a reputation for mounting traditional productions of operas from the standard repertoire. Yet the opening night performance, despite a handsome staging and a well-rehearsed, committed cast, registered as something less than a success.

Carlson’s adaptation seems more or less faithful to the spirit and outline of the novel that Tolstoy first introduced in serial form in 1877. With few exceptions, the composer and his librettist, the late Colin Graham, followed the story of the doomed title character, who forsakes marriage, family, and social respectability when she embarks on an adulterous affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Tolstoy has Anna give birth to Vronsky’s daughter, while, in one notable departure, Carlson has her suffer a miscarriage).

At the races: Prince Yashvin (Paul Murray), Princess Betsy (Megan Stetson), Anna (Jasmina Halimic), and Dolly Oblonsky (Betany Coffland).

Graham (who died just before the opera premiered, in 2007, at Florida Grand Opera) was charged with the daunting task of condensing the novel; he fashioned a superb English-language libretto, one that focuses on the central love triangle but includes many of the novel’s secondary characters while managing to suggest, if not always develop, Tolstoy’s keen observations on philosophy, religion, nature, and society. Mark Streshinsky, who directed the Florida production, has since written a new scene at Carlson’s request, which directly incorporates excerpts from Tolstoy’s text and which was added to the opera for this production.

Saturday’s opening at the California Theatre, which repeats with an alternating cast through Sept. 26, brought the opera to the West Coast in grand style, with assured musical direction by Stewart Robertson and an attractive production designed by Steven C. Kemp and directed by Brad Dalton. The designs — sets by Kemp, costumes by Elizabeth Poindexter, and lighting by Kent Dorsey — evoke a glittering 19th-century milieu; the transitions between scenes in town houses, in country homes, at race tracks, and at the novel’s fateful train station are achieved in fluid strokes, with the addition of a few set pieces: tables and chairs, massive gold-framed portraits, mirrors, painted scrims.

Yet the opera is lacking precisely where it most counts — in the power of the music to animate and invigorate the action. Carlson, relying on Romantic convention, employs straightforward melodies and transparent harmonies, often drawing on French and Russian idioms (including an episode recalling Tchaikovsky’s “Czar’s Theme”).

But as the evening wears on, the score begins to sound blandly atmospheric and dully repetitive; it broods and simmers where it should surge and boil. And if Carlson is an effective orchestrator, he’s not a particularly assertive melodist. He doesn’t advance the drama very effectively; nor does he prove markedly adept at characterizing through music. He shades, rather than delineates, and that’s a problem in a cast of many characters.

Lyrical Vocal Writing, With Mixed Delivery

Still, the vocal writing contains moments of lyrical beauty — a haunting aria for Karenin as he awakens to Anna’s infidelity; a serene Act 2 trio for the characters Levin, Kitty, and the servant Agafia — and the cast, with few exceptions, made an effective case for them.

Jasmina Halimic in the title role

In the title role, Jasmina Halimic introduced a richly colored, if not especially well-supported, soprano voice; her portrayal of Anna grew in dramatic stature throughout the evening, as the character makes her descent into addiction and, eventually, madness. Krassen Karagiozov’s occluded tone and awkward gestural language yielded an oddly blunt, disappointing Vronsky, but bass-baritone Kirk Eichelberger’s resplendent tone and forceful projection created a memorable Karenin. Michael Dailey’s Levin combined lyric sensitivity, elegant phrasing, and tonal sheen. Khori Dastoor’s Kitty, Betany Coffland’s Dolly, Christopher Bengochea’s Stiva, and Heather McFadden’s Agafia all made fine contributions.

Holding this large-scale production together was conductor Robertson, who drew warm sonorities and rhythmic precision from the pit (Bryan Nies will conduct the final two performances, Sept. 25-26). Carlson, who came onstage during a curtain call, looked slightly dazed and unmistakably grateful. You couldn’t call it a triumph, but Saturday’s opening brought the composer’s vision to the stage with affection and respect.