On March 19, Opera News' online edition blared a headline labeled "Breaking News." Given, Opera News isn't in exactly in the news-breaking business, but the announcement that due to illness Colin Graham had withdrawn as stage director of the soon-to-open world premiere of an opera based on Leo Tolstoy's massive novel, Anna Karenina, was a big deal. Graham, you see, was the best-known and most experienced director of new opera in the world. When he died a few weeks later, he left a legacy that included 56 world-premiere opera productions, 48 of which were staged during nearly three decades with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Anna Karenina, which opened this past Sunday, was the triumphant culmination of his spectacular career.
Graham's libretto for Anna gestated for nearly 40 years. He'd originally planned to do it with composer Benjamin Britten, but abandoned the project for political reasons in 1968 and had been intermittently scratching away at it ever since. In 1993 he staged the premiere of Midnight Angel, an opera by a young American composer, David Carlson. In Carlson, Graham realized, he had found the man to write the music for Anna Karenina.
Throughout his career, Graham's staging was open and traditional. He once said a director should "illuminate, not...disguise." Even so, he wasn't afraid to try something new. When Graham directed Sergei Prokofiev's adaptation of another Tolstoy epic, War and Peace, in 1972, he used screen projections and lighting effects to add movement and stage space for the portrayal of crowds, and to facilitate scene changes. Here, he and Mark Streshinsky, the assistant who completed the staging based on Graham's instructions, combines projections and lighting with a three-section, turntable stage that glides through the multiple scene changes in each act with elegant ease. The turntables also ingeniously allow several of Tolstoy's plot lines to unfold simultaneously without confusion.
The complex action suits the tightly woven score. In keeping with Graham's vision, David Carlson's music is a hybrid of modern and traditional elements. It's romantic without being sweet, emotional without being bombastic. Carlson has combined modern percussive techniques reminiscent of Prokofiev, harmonies that invoke Richard Strauss and rhythms evocative of Gershwin to create music as complicated and emotionally charged as Tolstoy's morally challenged characters. Conductor Stewart Robinson and a nineteenth-century Russian-style crew of musicians from the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra gracefully illuminate plot points and enhance each singer's work without compromising the tricky score.
Carlson had picked the cast members as he was writing. So it's no surprise that soprano Kelly Kaduce — whom Opera Theatre aficionados will remember for her dramatically charged debut as Sister Angelica in 2004 and her drop-dead wonderful Jane Eyre last season — is a total knockout as the perversely passionate Anna. Robert Gierlach as her lover, Vronsky, and Christian Van Horn as her cuckolded and rejected husband, head up the strong supporting cast.
Graham's legacy manifests itself marvelously in the acting. Once, cautioning a young singer against overprojecting, he famously counseled, "Instead of throwing yourself at audiences, you must invite them into your presence." This Anna Karenina is a masterpiece of naturalism and restraint. Even the scene in which Anna goes mad forgoes histrionics for subtlety. Graham's dialogue is almost matter-of-fact, conveying with Zen simplicity Tolstoy's complex reflections on the lives he's depicting and their meanings.
Speaking of simplicity, Graham claimed to have "always been fascinated [with]... making the maximum effect with a minimum of means, distilling everything as much as possible to make it more powerful.... I've always tried to do everything with less scenery and less this and that." That ethos permeates this production. Set designer Neil Patel and lighting director Mark McCullough derive the maximum effect from the minimum of fuss, and their stripped-down environs mirror Graham's sleek libretto, capturing the dramatic and philosophical essence of Tolstoy's 800-page novel in three hours of brisk and masterful stagecraft.