Chinese rendition of Anna Karenina proves a big hit

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A Chinese adaptation of the Russian musical Anna Karenina, which is based on Leo Tolstoy's widely acclaimed novel by the same name, is enthralling audiences in cities of China it is touring.

The Chinese musical — a joint project between Chinese and Russian troupes — premiered in Shanghai in October, and has been staged in various parts of China ever since the country optimized its COVID-19 response measures earlier this year.

Zhao Qian, supervisor of the Chinese troupe, said the musical was staged in Xiamen, Fujian province, Beijing and Shenzhen, Guangdong province, between January and March, and it will tour Guangzhou and Zhuhai, both in Guangdong, and Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, between April and May.

With about 30 performances across cities, the musical — one of the very first Russian musicals adapted into Chinese — has attracted about 40,000 spectators so far. More shows will be staged in the second half of 2023, Zhao said.

"Anna Karenina, considered by many critics as Tolstoy's finest work, is one of the most important novels of the 19th century. It has a large fan base in China," Zhao said, adding that tickets sold out fast, especially for the shows in Shanghai and Beijing.

The Russian musical, directed by Alina Chevik and choreographed by Irina Korneeva, premiered at Moscow's Operetta Theater in 2016. It featured a score by composer Roman Ignatyev and a libretto by songwriter Yuly Kim.

The musical follows the dramatic and ill-fated love story of the married Anna Karenina and a dashing military officer, Alexei Vronsky. The characters struggle with love and betrayal, passion and duty, hope and desperation.

"From the very beginning, artists of the Russian troupe have worked closely with Chinese artists. They guided us with details about the musical, helping us with rounds of audition for the cast and choir members, as well as with the stage sets and costumes," Zhao said.

Liu Wenfei, a veteran researcher, writer and translator, who is also president of the China Association of Russian Literature Research, translated the musical for Chinese script and lyrics. Liu spent a whole year working on the translation, "staying loyal to the original meaning of the songs in the Russian musical". "At the same time, we tried to find the right words in Chinese to go with the melodies," he said.

Chinese bass-baritone singers Hong Zhiguang and Jia Fan, who gained a large fan base after appearing on the hit reality show, Super Vocal, produced by Hunan Satellite TV, play the role of Vronsky in the Chinese musical. Li-Tong Hsu and Zhang Huifang play Anna.

"All the scenes in the Chinese adaptation stay true to the Russian musical, including the train station that appears several times in the musical, and the visual feasts conjured by trained figure skaters," said Zhao.

Like the Russian musical, the Chinese version also has a live orchestra playing over 40 songs across a wide range of genres, including pop, rock and operatic style.

The Chinese adaptation was started by stage producer Zhang Nianxian, who traveled to Moscow in 2019 to meet her business partners to discuss future projects, such as bringing Russian classical musicians to perform in China.

Zhang, who has been involved in the classical music scene in China for decades, was so impressed by Anna Karenina's music, choreography, spectacular stage sets and costumes that she decided to bring the Russian musical to China. The plan was deferred due to the COVID-19 outbreak shortly after Zhang returned from Russia.

"It was very challenging, much harder than we all had expected," recalled Zhang, producer of the Chinese musical. "We did auditions online and our communication with the creative team of the musical in Russia was also conducted online. Training and rehearsals were postponed over and over again."

"The night before the Chinese musical's premiere, the Russian producer told me that we did a great job," she said.

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