Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Throw Tolstoy From the Train

September 18, 2010

Jasmina Halimic in Anna Karenina Photo: Pat Kirk/Opera San Jose 2010

Friday night brought my first visit to Opera San José on my way north for the weekend. The company has a number of assets that are immediately apparent. First is the beautifully restored California Theater in downtown San José where the company currently performs. The 1927 marvel comes complete with two working organs including one in the lobby and frankly was worth the visit in and of itself. The second major asset on display was the quite good San José Opera orchestra. For a company its size, I wasn’t expecting an ensemble that sounded as warm and on target as they did. Which I suppose says more about my shortsightedness than their significant abilities, which were under the guidance of Stewart Robertson. The orchestral performance was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. It was clear that a lot of time and money had been lavished on this good-looking and sounding production.

Now all anyone could ask for was a good opera. Sadly, David Carlson’s Anna Karenina wasn’t it. The work was commissioned in 2007 by Florida Grand Opera in a co-production with Opera Theater of St. Louis and is now receiving its West Coast Premiere. I suppose it’s some measure of success that the work has received as many performances as it has, but it is undoubtedly a long and unconvincing slog. The music was reminiscent of a movie score and seemed to float in the background without ever poking its unobtrusive head into the mix. The vocal writing had an absent quality as well. All of this is only compounded by libretto issues. Credited to Colin Graham with additional text by Mark Strenshinsky, the opera does undertake a Sisyphean labor in converting Tolstoy’s huge novel into only three hours of stage drama. This is not an iporssible task as proven by Gene Scheer with his excellent libretto for Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick in Dallas earlier this year. Anna Karenina however is littered with unnecessary characters, storylines and dialog for a rather simple and melodramatic story of an affair. The text waxes between the cliché and the pedestrian arriving at the prosaic “It is over” for Anna’s exit line. But wait - at the 2 hour 50 minute mark, there’s more with an additional 10 minute or so epilogue.

The vocal performances themselves were professionally done by the members of Opera San José’s cast of resident artists. On Friday’s performance Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste sang Anna Karenina with her dueling paramours Karenin and Vronsky performed by Isaiah Musik-Ayala and Torlef Borsting respectively. All were watchable performers who projected well with good clarity and stability. I also rather liked Steven Kemp’s romantic, if minimal, sets that were evocative without being fussy. But the action on stage often flagged with too much to say and too little to do. Even the business about jumping in front of the train, which is revisited on three separate occasions in the work was underwhelming relying on the old walking into the bright oncoming headlight trick. However, you cannot fault the company for giving it their all for a strongly made case of a losing argument. For a recent opera, that's a sizable risk for an American company these days and they should be acknowledged for it.

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That just might be the best post title ever. I've been debating whether or not to see this and you've swayed me to one side. I really hope you see Jerry Springer while you're up here.
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