Revisiting Christian Spuck’s Anna Karenina two years after its Ballett Zürich première (now with a new cast), gave me greater insights into the psychology of fleeting love and abandonment, but also into the tenuous role of women in Leo Tolstoy’s Russia at the end of the 19th century.

Katja Wünsche (Anna Karenina) and William Moore (Alexej Wronski) © Gregory Batardon
Katja Wünsche (Anna Karenina) and William Moore (Alexej Wronski)
© Gregory Batardon

The music chosen to underscore the author’s epic narrative is highly illustrative. Under Paul Connelly’s capable baton, the opera’s own Philharmonia Zürich orchestra moves seamlessly from accompaniments as romantic and robust as the third movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano concerto No 2, to the haunting and star-like abstractions of the modern genre in works by Witold Lutostawski, Sulkhan Tsintsadze or Josef Bardanashvili. While piecing together such a complex score must have been a Herculean task, the finished musical compilation oscillates between harmonious and dissonant interludes, and reflects the characters’ emotional fabric in every instance. What’s more, two particularly accomplished soloists − the superb soprano Judith Schmidt and the gifted pianist Adrian Oetiker − give a powerful new dimension to the work.

Christian Spuck and Jörg Zielinski’s predominantly dark set − offset by only a few simple props – makes a bleak and blank stage impression. A handful of naked tree trunks serve as the outdoors; two off-centre painted chandeliers call up a noble interior. Most effective, however, are the huge single sheets draped periodically at the back of the stage; they carry select projections of historical video or still shots to suggest the locations. Whether the noisy chugging locomotive, the working farmland, or the idyll of a tree-lined Tuscan countryside, those images are as ingenious as they are easily managed.

Katja Wünsche  (Anna Karenina) © Gregory Batardon
Katja Wünsche (Anna Karenina)
© Gregory Batardon
In Tolstoy’s epic novel, the vivacious Anna Karenina is suffering acutely under the weight of her marriage with a strict and conventional husband. When she meets the handsome military officer Vronsky, he woos her unreservedly, until − overcoming her initial reservations − she falls in love with him. Once their peers sense the intimate liaison, however, Anna falls from grace and is banned from her earlier status and activities. Ironically, she is stripped of her roles, both in society and as mother to a beloved son, even as Vronsky, entirely unscathed and unblemished, goes on to enjoy his cavalier lifestyle.

As Anna, principal dancer Katja Wünsche takes on her role like a second skin. In the euphoria of her love’s awakening, she defies gravity by twisting high in the air. Indeed, Spuck’s choreography seems to give a whole new definition to the word “entwined”. While in the graphic lovemaking scene her lithe physique writhes passionately with Vronsky on the stage floor; she later evokes tremendous pathos and sympathy later in the ballet, as she portrays a mother deliberately separated from her child. Bridging the psyche makes the performance highly three-dimensional, and boosts the plausibility of the narrative. As Vronsky, William Moore cuts an equally elegant, if boyish, figure, and is well cast. Upon their return to St. Petersburg from an Italian idyll, his abrupt rejection of Anna suggests he was simply too young to be looking for more than a good time. By contrast, Anna’s own rigid husband − danced frontally for the most part by seasoned principal Filipe Portugal − is a fine study in loveless severity.

Other dancers also deserve accolades. Giulia Tonelli, as Anna’s dear friend Betty, convincingly portrays a stubborn bias, categorically refusing to try and understand how devotion to a man outside an unfulfilled marriage could be an enrichment. As landowner Levin and his Kitty, Tars Vandebeek and Michelle Willems made the perfect mirror of promising youth; I beamed when his character finally succumbed to her innocent enchantments.

As Stiva and his wife Dolly, Tigran Mkrtchyan and Galina Mihaylova danced the roles of a married couple plagued by his frequent infidelity, and were as convincing in their theatrical roles as they were masters of Spuck’s demanding choreography. What’s more, in the interval, the dancers met the audience in an autogramme session, a treat that afforded a close-up peek at designer Emma Ryott’s fantastic costumes, whose layered silks and delicate petticoats would be the envy of any court. Indeed, for any lover of fine textiles, Anna’s all-white embroidered day dress and the softly-falling nightgown she wears in her last scene were, even taken alone, well worth the price of admission.

Galina Mihaylova (Dolly) and Tigran Mkrtchyan (Stiwa) © Gregory Batardon
Galina Mihaylova (Dolly) and Tigran Mkrtchyan (Stiwa)
© Gregory Batardon

At the end of the ballet, the tragic irony of Anna’s suicide is that the straightjacket of convention in Tolstoy’s time allowed men their sexual freedoms, while it condemned women to a life of strict domesticity and parenting. Robbed of both these roles, Anna Karenina had little chance at happiness or survival. And if there’s a lesson to be gleaned, it might be this: stay away from a loveless liaison; it’s something you can’t have too little of.