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Carlson: Anna Karenina / Robertson, Kaduce, Gierlach, Et Al

Release Date: 04/28/2009 
Label:  Signum Classics   Catalog #: 154   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  David Carlson
Performer:  Kelly KaduceRobert Gierlach
Conductor:  Stewart Robertson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CARLSON Anna Karenina Stewart Robertson, cond; Kelly Kaduce ( Anna ); Robert Gierlach ( Vronsky ); Christian Van Horn ( Karenin ); Brandon Jovanovich ( Levin ); Christine Abraham ( Dolly ); William Joyner ( Stiva ); Sarah Coburn ( Read more class="ARIAL12i">Kitty ); Rosalind Elias ( Agafia ); Op Theatre of Saint Louis; Saint Louis SO SIGNUM 154 (2 CDs:139:47 Text and Translation) Live: St. Louis 6/3–21/2007)

The late Colin Graham was one of the most distinguished opera directors of the last half of the 20th century, a collaborator with Benjamin Britten during that composer’s later years, artistic director at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis for over two decades, and midwife to 56 opera premieres there and in major houses in the United Kingdom and United States. He was also a distinguished librettist. He first produced a libretto on Anna Karenina for Britten, for production in Russia, but the project was eventually killed by Cold War politics. Graham met David Carlson when he staged the premiere of his first opera, A Midnight Angel , in St. Louis in 1993. Discussions of future projects and a commission from Florida Grand Opera led to the resurrection of the project as the core for this new collaboration.

Those familiar with Tolstoy’s novel through film versions alone will think of the work as a romantic tale of obsessive love in a world of thoughtless privilege. While Graham does not in any way slight the story of passionate, self-destructive Anna, charming Vronsky, and aloof Karenin—a significant feat in itself, given the complexity of the novel—he returns the final focus to Levin, the author-surrogate, and to his quest for meaning in his life. The result is dramatic balance—Levin’s salvation counters Anna’s fall—in a libretto of great concentration and generous insight, in which duty, love, adultery, forgiveness, faith, and the cruelty of propriety, are all explored. Anna’s tragic death may be the inexorable end to her story, but it is not, as it is in too many adaptations, the culmination of the work. Rather, Levin’s discovery of the answer to his quest, in the words given by Graham to Levin’s wise old peasant nurse, Agafia, provides the moving and deeply satisfying conclusion here, as it does in the novel.

Carlson’s work complements this devotion to the original. His score embodies old-fashioned values in opera writing: economy of means, vocal lines that are congenial to the voice, meticulously balanced scenes, natural word-setting, leitmotifs employed to highlight and amplify the qualities of the characters, skillfully crafted ensembles, and catch-in-the-throat climaxes. This is the very antithesis of opera as mere play setting, an all-too-common approach in contemporary lyric theater. Coleman has created a score that is an equal partner, rewarding to listen to in its own right, as a score by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, or Rachmaninoff —three of Carlson’s acknowledged inspirations—would be. There are hints of Prokofiev and Orthodox chant as well—the latter in the baleful chorale-like fate motif that appears at the beginning and in variation throughout—but his harmonic palette is broader than that of any of the Russian masters he honors. This extended tonal language and an occasional dose of post-minimalist nervous energy is synthesized by the composer into a score that is highly Romantic and thoroughly melodic without pandering and without ever seeming reactionary.

Aided by music that underscores Anna’s emotional lability, Kelly Kaduce creates a capricious, driven, but thoroughly sympathetic Anna, her evenly produced, golden-toned soprano intelligently bent and shaped to every emotion. Her two Alexeis, the two sides of her same coin, are contrasting bass baritones. Christian Van Horn, possessed of a dark-hued voice with a steel core, allows us to see both the obdurate and the vulnerable in Karenin, her husband. His aria, “How strange she is tonight,” inspires the one (forbidden) applause interruption from an otherwise well-behaved audience. Robert Gierlach, brighter and more agile of voice, suggests perfectly the young charismatic officer, Vronsky, her lover, though he, too, finds steel as Anna drives him away. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich provides contrast for the love triangle with a voice and manner that suggest Levin’s vitality and passion as well as his guilelessness. The other singers—mezzo Christine Abraham, who is perfect as heroic, loyal Dolly; tenor William Joyner, who radiates Stiva’s charm and insincerity; lyric soprano Sarah Coburn, who thrills as sensitive, honest Kitty—are part of a uniformly excellent cast. Special mention needs to be made of veteran mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias, whose vibrant Agafia commands attention at every appearance. At age 78, her famously rich voice had faded, but her artistry clearly had not.

Stewart Robertson, who conducted Carlson’s first opera at OTSL, has been involved in the creation of Anna Karenina from the beginning, and has been a promoter of Carlson’s work for two decades. His interpretation must be deemed authoritative. The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra’s performance is warmly responsive to Carlson’s work, and highly satisfying, despite a few instances of live-performance scrappiness. The sound is rather dry; the Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre is not an ideal acoustic environment for singing or recording. The ear, however, adjusts and the sound does not distract from the excellence of the performance. The only real disappointment is that Colin Graham did not live to see his opera and production staged.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

Anna Karenina by David Carlson
Performer:  Kelly Kaduce (Voice), Robert Gierlach (Voice)
Conductor:  Stewart Robertson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 

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