The women behind Anchorage's new production of "Carmen" are angling to cast Bizet's opera in a fresh light. Or rather a fresh shadow.
Anchorage Opera bills this show, which opened last night, as a "take-no-prisoners" version. What's that mean?
There's a tendency to present "Carmen" more as a teary romance than blood-curdling tragedy, says director Cynthia Edwards. After all, the best-known parts of its well-known score sing of love and freedom with infectiously light, lively music.
"But keep in mind, they're in a war," she adds. "So we're trying to give it a little darker tone."
Darker not just in the set, lights and staging but even in which version of the score Anchorage will be hearing and seeing in this run. Says conductor Sara Jobin: "It's 'take-no-prisoners' with the music as well."
Those familiar with the opera know that it opens with deceptive brightness, considering what follows. The sun is out. Children are playing. Seville's civilians are milling about their business, the public peace and safety is protected by crisply uniformed soldiers. Factory girls take their cigarette break and flirt coyly with the menfolk.
The original novella on which Bizet based his story, in contrast, opens in desolate country as night comes on. There's an immediate confrontation with a brigand, then an ancient and eerie gypsy, fleeing fugitives, pursuing authorities, filth, poverty, threats, theft, lances, guns. We quickly learn that Don Jose, Carmen's lover, has beat a man to death and is sentenced to die. The book -- in which the opera's plot is revealed as a sort of flashback from the gallows -- compares him to Satan.
He's a fallen angel, all right, says Edwards, but one with high ideals. "In joining the army (he's a soldier at the start of the opera), he's trying to prove himself. He's looking for a purpose that will redeem his life."
At least that's what he wants to believe. "But in his heart, he's looking for something darker -- and that's Carmen."
Sensual, hot-tempered, jealous and addicted to risk, Carmen knows herself and is confident with who she is. "She is able to balance her light and dark sides," Edwards says. "When she meets Don Jose, she sees something dangerous but chooses to go for it."
FORWARD TO FASCISM
Edwards chooses to highlight the darkness -- so to speak -- by moving the time period forward 100 years, from the era of the novella and traditional settings of the opera to the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War.
Part of the reason for the time shift is mundane. "I saw a set of costumes that I liked," Edwards says. The Franco-fascist look reminded her of a production she'd seen at New York City Opera, where she usually works.
The updated setting connects with modern sensibilities, she says, by moving the story out of the age of illustration and into the age of newsreels. "It makes you take notice a little more," she says. And it adds a note of credibility.
In the 1830s setting, one is not sure what contraband Carmen's friends are smuggling; probably something quaint like tobacco. The backdrop for the Anchorage production aims to make it clear that they're smuggling arms in a desperate life-or-death gamble. Gunfire flashes in the distance. Below the partisans' hideout, homes are burning and people are dying.
The battlefield dimension has a specific dramatic effect, Edwards says. "It heightens the tension between Carmen and Don Jose."
They're not just emotional adversaries, she explains, but deadly political enemies. In this show, among Carmen's other problems, she also has to worry that she'll be seen as a collaborator for hanging out with a soldier.
TURN OFF THE SINGING
For her part, conductor Jobin is going with the edgiest version of the score -- which is to say, the original one. "We're only doing Bizet's music," she says.
For all the sumptuous and popular arias in "Carmen" (the popularity thanks in part to parodies and lampoons by Garrison Keillor, "Gilligan's Island," Andy Griffin and "The Simpsons," among others; does anyone not know the tune to the "Toreador Song"?) the composer left the words in between the arias to be spoken, more like a musical than an opera. Maybe he liked it like that, maybe he ran out of time; he died shortly after the premiere.
But switching between singing and speaking is difficult for some performers and can be off-putting to some audiences. So, over the years, music has been written to accompany those stretches of dialogue. Some say it smooths things out; others say the trade-off isn't worth it.
Jobin is in the latter camp. "When you listen to the recitatives" written after Bizet's death "it's like watching a movie in black and white," she says. "It becomes technicolor as soon as the music is Bizet's."
Few music lovers will argue with that. But the spoken dialogue, nonetheless, adds a startling, almost grating element to the sound of the thing.
An ugly necessity, perhaps, but a conscious aesthetic decision. One that Carmen -- who sees danger and chooses it anyway -- might have made herself is she had the chance to direct her own opera.
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.
CARMEN, presented by Anchorage Opera, opened Saturday and continues with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Friday and 4 p.m. Nov. 16 in the Discovery Theatre. Tickets are $35-$105, available by calling 263-2787 or online at CenterTix.net.
From: Massachusetts, "the suburbs of Boston."
Now: Living in San Francisco for the past 16 years.
Employer: San Francisco Opera
Achievements: Leading the world premiere performance of Philip Glass's "Appomattox." With regard to the composer's notoriously nervous minimalism, she says "It's not that difficult. 'Appomattox' is less repetitive than a lot of his previous work. You figure out where you are in the pattern. But the music is so transparent that the audience can tell when something's a little bit off. That's a problem in the pit at (San Francisco's) War Memorial opera house. The basses and cellos are way off on the left and can't quite hear each other."
What you wouldn't guess: She has a black belt and is a national judo champion.
Impressions of Alaska: "I drove to Denali. It was gorgeous. An eagle flew right by my car. Two days ago, I was walking on my lunch break and saw a moose 20 feet from me. I thought: Yeahhhhh ... I'm in Alaska!"
Stage director; "I paint with people."
From: California, Penn. (That's the town in the Keystone State, not the state south of Oregon.)
Now: Living in New York City
Employer: New York City Opera
Achievements include: Staging new productions of "Tosca," "Trovatore," "Zauberflote" and other established operas for several east coast companies and mounting New York revivals of "Carmen," "Rigoletto," "Merry Widow," "Mefistofele" and "Die Tote Stadt."
What you wouldn't guess: As an aspiring soprano, she once worked in the gift shop at the Metropolitan Opera. "I thought I was in heaven," she says. She shifted from singing to staging after participating in performer showcases. "They always needed someone to direct, and I figured I could do it as well as most people who were doing it."
Impressions of Alaska: "I was very keen to come up here. It's exotic to me."
Spanish Civil War
Causes: A slender plurality won by a coalition of liberal parties in 1936 set the stage for a downward spiral of political instability with factions urged on by Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. Military leaders rebelled against the civilian government, and foreign volunteers poured in to fight for the opposing sides.
Results: Assisted by superior German arms and air power, General Francisco Franco led the fascist forces to victory and ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975.
Casualties: Various sources estimate that about 500,000 -- one in 30 Spaniards -- died in the conflict or in the repressions that followed. Ten percent of all soldiers were killed, and hundreds of thousands of civilians lost their lives as a result of combat, famine or massive reprisals carried out by both sides.
Historical note: The original novel, "Carmen," and traditional settings of the opera take place in 1830, at the end of a period of relative domestic peace in Spain. In 1833, a dynastic dispute caused the First Carlist War, which ravaged Spain until 1840 and set the stage for recurring unrest leading to the civil war of the 1930s. Estimates of casualties range from 30,000 to over 100,000, mostly uniformed military.