Review: Gritty 'Carmen' takes center stage in mill ruins

Jay Furst | Jul 21, 2018

Nothing in the U.S. opera world compares to what the Mill City Summer Opera presents: Professional opera outdoors, center city, in the atmospheric ruins of a historic stone building on the Mississippi riverfront.

The 7-year-old company is back this week with Bizet’s lyric tragedy “Carmen,” which is perfectly suited for the open-air courtyard of what’s now the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, close by the waterfalls that turned the turbines that turned the city into the nation’s flour-milling capital 150 years ago.

Two performances remain in “Carmen’s" short run, at 7:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday. The production had a rocky start a week ago Friday, when tenor Adam Diegel, as Don Jose, was ill but gamely sang the first half, then was voiced in the second half by cover Adam Love. It was an awkward solution, and Love, who was off-stage, was difficult to hear, leaving Diegel to mime what was going on.

But in most other ways, the production is a winner, powered by mezzo Audrey Babcock as the heroine. Babcock, of West Hollywood, Calif., completely inhabits the role of the lusty, rebellious cigarette factory worker who wants nothing more than total freedom. In all the key numbers, from the “Habanera” and “Seguidilla” to the fatal duet with dishevelled Don Jose at the end, her voluptuous voice and intensity set the show on fire.

This production, directed by Fenlon Lamb, makes Carmencita more dangerous than most, and Don Jose also. Carmen and others push Jose to kill Zuniga, crisply performed by Benjamin Sieverding, at the end of Act Two. Before that, Jose smacks Carmen in another unnecessary foreshadowing of what’s to come.

Throughout, there’s a more verismo approach to Bizet’s masterpiece, though the final scene on opening night was mishandled and anticlimactic.

Adding to the gritty feel, this production uses the spoken word version, rather than sung recitative, of Bizet’s score. The cabaret-size orchestra is positioned as an observer of the action, high up at one corner of the stage, which adds to the theatricality.

Luis Alejandra Orozco is a charming and memorable Escamillo, and costumer Sarah Bahr gets extra points for his glittering torreador costume in Act Four. Soprano Karen Slack makes a strong impression with Micaela's grand-opera turn in “Parle-moi de ma mere,” and Nadia Fayad and Siena Forest are standouts as Mercedes and Fasquita, especially when they’re telling fortunes in the smugglers camp.

Founder Karen Brooks and the Mill City company deserve immense credit for the seven years they’ve devoted to building summer opera in the Twin Cities. This “Carmen” is another impressive building block in the process.