The many lives of Anna Karenina

Есть столько видов любви, сколько существует сердец
[There are as many kinds of love as there are hearts – Lev Tolstoj]
When Anna Karenina’s last chapter was eventually published in 1877 and was released in book form in 1878, it caused quite the scandal, shaking a few crowned heads, and the souls of several aristocratic débutantes (and their parents too).

by Sebastiano Bazzichetto

TORONTO – Considered by many the greatest work of literature ever written, it comes as no surprise that Lev Tolstoj’s epic love novel has become a classic, an unmissable appointment to those who want to enhance their personal journey while sailing the wondrous sea of literature.  And Tolstoj himself called it his first true novel. With its stunning, renowned opening (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”), Anna Karenina represents a tremendous mouthpiece for the most human feelings, as well as the complex social fresco at the twilight of Imperial Russia.


Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012)

As much as it is rooted in the culture and the society of its time, such an extraordinary piece of literature could not sink into oblivion. Vocalizing the stories and lives of more than a dozen main characters (even a dog’s thoughts – her name, Laska), given his vivid style throughout the novel, Tolstoj was able to articulate in an incredibly modern way the events and his characters’ psyche.

Countess Anna’s ill-fated liaison with handsome, algid Count Vronsky (which eventually leads to her downfall) is so vibrant that it resonates in the minds and hearts of contemporary lovers and readers, women and men alike.

johnson vronsky

Aaron Johnson as Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky (2012)

And as we know, every masterpiece cannot but inspire adaptations, imitations and makeovers.  As expected, Anna is no exception. The number of its adaptations goes uncertain.

Many are the artists who tried to do Anna justice, and portray her unhappy, tormented life. Some motion pictures, dramas and interpretations are more memorable than others.

The earliest instance is allegedly the 1904-1905 Anna Karenina, an opera by the Italian composer Edoardo Granelli, followed by a second Anna Karenina (in 1905) by Salvatore Sassano on Antonio Menotti’s libretto. The latter won several prizes, and was premièred by Mercadante Theater in Naples the same year.

In 1907, French playwright Edmond Guiraud adapted the Russian tragedy of all tragedies (after Ancient times) for the stage with his Anna Karénine.

GG anna 2

Princess Kitty (left) and Anna (right)

It was 1935 that hailed Anna Karenina, allegedly the most famous and critically acclaimed cinematographic version, starring Greta Garbo and Fredric March (Vronsky), directed by Clarence Brown. The film also featured Basil Rathbone as Alexei Karenin and Maureen O’Sullivan as princess Kitty.

GG anna

Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina (1935)

Nine years after the tremendous success of Gone with the wind, Vivien Leigh appeared in the title role in the 1948 version directed by Julien Duvivier. The film was produced by Alexander Korda for his company, London Films, and distributed in the United States by 20th Century Fox. The screenplay was by Jean Anouilh, Julien Duvivier and Guy Morgan, with the music by Constant Lambert, lavish decors by André Andrejew and the cinematography by Henri Alekan.


In 1967, Russian director Aleksander Zarkhi offered the role of the doomed countess to Tatiana Samoilova, who eventually appeared beside her former husband Vasily Lanovoy (Vronsky).


Tatiana Samoilova in white silk brocade and fur as Anna

The first American version to be filmed on location in Russia was released in 1997, directed by Bernard Rose, starring an ethereal Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean (count Vronsky). Alfred Molina, Mia Kirshner and James Fox played respectively the roles of Konstanti Levin, princess Kitty and Alexei Karenin. The film is the only international version filmed entirely in Russia, at locations in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. The soundtrack, directed by the same Rose, was conformed of several Russian classical and traditional musical pieces, and performed by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Sir Georg Solti.


In 2004, Alexei Ratmansky choreographed a ballet Anna Karenina with the music by Rodion Shchedrin.

anna k kn 3

Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012)

In 2012 it was Keira Knightley who accepted the challenge to portray the role of the noble ill-starred wife, mother and lover. Director Joe Wright’s sensual and elegant muse was paired with Jude Law as Anna’s husband and Aaron Taylor Johnson Tyron as arctic-eyed Vronsky.

anna k kn 4

Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012)

Finally, this November the 10th marks the North American premiere of John Neumeier’s Anna Karenina in Toronto for the National Ballet of Canada. Based on Tolstoj’s masterpiece, Anna represents the first cooperation between the National Ballet, the Hamburg Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet, and opens this year’s season at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The Canadian audience will have the chance to see Principal Dancers Svetlana Lunkina, Heather Ogden and Sonia Rodriguez dancing in the title role. Set to the music by  Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Alfred Schnittke and Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, the ballet has been hailed “an Anna Karenina for our times”.

garbo and march

Fredric March as count Vronsky with Greta Garbo in 1935 Anna Karenina

Using Tolstoj’s novel as an inspirational source, more than a strict narrative template, Neumeier chooses to adapt the work freely. Rather than the 19th-century Imperial Russia, he sets the story in the present day, and devise his ballet in two acts with numerous scene changes, condensing the material and focusing on its key themes.

Anna Karenina

Anna Laudere and Edvin Revazov of The Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier’s Anna Karenina. Photo by Kiran West.

Some pieces by Tchaikovsky provides the musical reference to the Tolstoyan universe, but Neumeier also incorporates modern work by Alfred Schnittke and Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam to further underscore the central characters’ conflicts and emotional lives.

The public can certainly anticipate a visceral experience that will render on stage the captivating beauty of Tolstoj’s novel, and that of the heroine of all heroines, Anna, to this very day struggling with a hard-faced society and its unforgiving morals.

John Neumeier’s Anna Karenina runs through November 18, 2018 at the Four Seasons Centre, Toronto.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s