Some "Carmen" productions try to find a bit of softness and innocence in the title character. But not this week's version from Anchorage Opera. Bizet's gypsy temptress, powerfully sung by Audrey Babcock, is, from start to finish, what some may describe as a serpent and others will see as a woman who has survived as long as she has by refusing to compromise with the pain life has brought her. It is a steely, adamantine portrayal that gives us a sense of Carmen as an elemental force, as certain and unstoppable as the tide.
She grinds Kirk Dougherty's boyish Don Jose to a pulp, leaving him corrupted and shattered as he transforms into the agent of her doom. Rebecca Heath made a beautiful and tragic Micaela, a village girl who is herself destroyed in her forlorn attempt to save Jose. The singing of both was quite good. Dougherty, for instance, hit the high "à toi" at the end of "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée" in full voice. Heath's phrasing, emotion and intonation were exquisite. There was nothing lacking in Babcock's voice in either the precision or strength departments.
As Escamillo, Guido LeBron commanded the stage whenever he appeared, both vocally and as a presence. His toreador was both a public hero and a likable mensch, taking a certain delight in the delight of others as he stole the show. When he pointedly kissed Carmen in front of her outgoing boyfriend in Act Three, one could hear a gasp, almost a giggle, from the audience.
Smooth staging with constant activity, directed by David Lefkowich, made this a "Carmen" worth watching. Though the arrangement of performers was somewhat dictated by the necessities of being heard without a microphone, there was a great sense of realism and credibility throughout the show. Likewise the unit set by Peter Harrison, four stark panels surrounding the players like a bullring and compellingly lit by Steve TenEyck, was both abstract and yet natural.
The secondary singers ranged from adequate to impressive and were all suitable for the parts. These included a well-projected Mercedes from Cabiria Jacobsen and Rachel Hastings, handling Frasquita much more happily than was the case with her Queen of the Night in last season's "Magic Flute." Michael Smith and George Yang made a lively and convincingly delinquent young pair of smugglers. Kyle Gantz did his best work to date with Zuniga, and Steven Dixon's Morales was a pleasure to hear.
The adult and children's choruses were effective and attentively rehearsed; the gentlemen of the chorus deserve particular praise. If there was a weak moment it came early on in the orchestra, which opened waywardly. Things improved later on; the winds in the Act Two prelude, for instance, were as nuanced as a Handel concerto. Brian DeMaris conducted with tight tempos and precision, but the evening stretched for three and a half hours with two intermissions. But the audience was on the edge of their seats for the frantic finale.
We cannot close this review without mentioning that Ethan Berkowitz had the short and ostensibly appropriate walk-on part as the Mayor of Seville. He didn't sing, but tipped his top hat repeatedly to the great amusement of the audience.
CARMEN will be presented at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24 and 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25 in the Discovery Theatre. Tickets are available at centertix.net.