With its bourgeois drama, classic romantic tension and a high-stakes love triangle, the classic Russian novel Anna Karenina makes perfect sense on an opera stage, especially to composer David Carlson and director Buck Ross who showcase an adaption of the novel to the University of Houston Moores Opera Center this weekend.
Originally published in 1877, Leo Tolstoy’s original novel is a beloved classic that tells the story of a woman in a heartless marriage who has an affair with a Calvary officer. It has since seen over a dozen adaptations from the 2012 film starring Keira Knightley and a musical, to a ballet and even another opera written by Ian Hamilton that premiered in 1978. But Carlson says his adaption shines in its unique reliance on the novel.
“The whole story is really about two couples: one that starts out very happy, and the other very unhappy,” Carlson says. “They’re parallel stories; they intertwine, but one [couple] descends and the other ascends.”
Carlson visited St. Petersburg, one of the principal cities in the novel, as part of his research, and incorporated the sounds and music there into his otherwise very American-sounding opera. The story’s tragic climax takes place at a real Russian train station, which inspired Carlson to incorporate frantic bells he heard from the station’s nearby Kazan Cathedral into the climax’s music.
Ross also incorporated a distinct approach to the opera, including cinematic, rapid-pace scene changes and grand projections, but aside from a smaller orchestra—which Carlson says is nearly indistinguishable in sound—there are few changes from the original. And with a story as old as Anna Karenina, there’s no effort to keep the story of the opera a secret; instead, Ross wants to provide audiences a fresh take on the story that uses music to deeply examine the characters.
“You don’t just see what they’re doing, you also hear what’s going on in their heads all the time,” Ross says. “That creates a different kind of experience that’s more emotional; it bypasses your head and goes right to your heart.”
UH Moores Opera Center. April 8, 9 and 11 at 7:30 p.m. April 10 at 2 p.m. $12 and 20. 713-743-3313. uh.edu