By Lawrence Budmen

The premiere of David Carlson’s Anna Karenina on Saturday at the Carnival Center was a milestone for Florida Grand Opera. 

Working with an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel by the late director Colin Graham, Carlson has crafted a compelling essay in lyric theater, powerful music drama in the tradition of Wagner and Strauss. Graham’s libretto skillfully melds the contrasting stories of the troubled marriage of Anna and Alexei Karenin and the pastoral romance of Levin and Kitty. 

Carlson’s agitated orchestral writing conveys a sense of Russian angst, with a nod to Prokofiev. The composer’s iridescent, richly textured instrumentation and surges of lyricism mirror the conflicted emotions of the tragic heroine in a series of moody tableaux. Aleatoric (or chance) techniques are employed to portray Anna’s addiction and emotional disintegration. 

Graham’s production, skillfully executed by Mark Streshinsky, powerfully moves and heightens the drama taking place on Neil Patel’s turntable set The confusion and bustle of the railway station, seen through Anna’s eyes, is a striking coup de theater. A page from Tolstoy’ s manuscript acts as a multi layered backdrop. Mark McCullough’s lighting matches the score’s restless moods; eerie blue evokes Anna’s nightmares and suicide. 

The English diction of the large cast was exceptional. Kelley Kaduce was a thrilling singing actress who vividly inhabited Anna’s passionate journey and tragedy. Her gorgeous lyric soprano, creamy middle register, and exciting high notes were always at the service of the drama. 

Christian van Horn was an imperious, cold presence as Alexei, Anna’s politically ambitious husband. His mellow bass-baritone had the rotund glow of molten lava. 
Robert Gierlach’s strong baritone and striking declamation brought depth to Count Vronsky, Anna’s lover, 

As the love sick Levin, Brandon Jovanovich, winner of the 2007 Richard Tucker Award, commanded a sizable, ringing lyric tenor. Sarah Coburn’ s radiant light soprano and captivating presence lit up the stage as Kitty. Christine Abraham, a stellar Blanche in Palm Beach Opera’ s Dialogues of the Carmelites several seasons ago, unfurled a warm, deeply expressive mezzo as Dolly, Kitty’s wise sister. 

After five decades on the operatic stage, Rosalind Elias revealed a still opulent mezzo voice and scene stealing prowess as Agafia Mihailova, Levin’s aging nurse. William Joyner’ s vibrant tenor and agile theatricality managed to bring the colorless role of Stiva to life. Dorothy Byrne, Josepha Gayer, and Corey Crider shone impressively in secondary roles. 

Stewart Robertson conducted an eloquent, incisive account of Carlson’s swirling musico-dramatic creation with bright, colorful playing from the Florida Classical Orchestra.

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