A sexy ‘Carmen’ at Mill City Summer Opera; ‘New Poets of Native Nations’ at the Bockley

Photo by Dan Norman
Mezzo soprano Audrey Babcock, center on table, has performed "Carmen" more than 100 times, and she inhabits it fully with her voice and her body.

At the Mill City Summer Opera, the weather is a cast member. Sometimes she’s very, very good, and sometimes she’s horrid. On a hot, humid night, the 144-year-old masonry walls of the Mill City Museum’s Ruins Courtyard, MCSO’s home, can be more oven than romantic ambience. But last Friday, when “Carmen” opened, the weather was a star. Just a few programs fluttered in the crowd, and that might have been due to the heat from the stage.

Directed by Fenlon Lamb, this is a sexy, steamy “Carmen.” Mezzo soprano Audrey Babcock has performed it more than 100 times, and she inhabits it fully with her voice and her body. Every glance, pose and gesture underscores what she proclaims in the famous “Habanera”: “If you don’t love me, I love you. If I love you, watch out.” She can make a loyal son forget his mother and a brigadier desert his post.

Tenor Adam Diegel is utterly convincing as Don José, a man consumed by desire. The character means well and wants to do right, but there’s no denying Carmen’s charms. On Friday, Diegel was feeling poorly, so he sang only the first two acts. For the final two, he acted his part, but Adam Lowe sang it from the side of the stage. It was a rare opportunity to hear two fine voices.

As Escamillo, the toreador, baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco is a match for Babcock in stage presence and sensuality. Micaëla, the only innocent in the story, though wiser than she appears, is splendidly sung by soprano Karen Slack. Her open-hearted arias are antidotes to the opera’s darkness.

If some of the leads, all out-of-towners, look familiar, it’s because we’ve seen them before: Diegel as “Tosca” with the MCSO, Orozco in last year’s “Maria de Buenos Aires,” Slack as Sister Rose, friend to Sister Helen Prejean, in Minnesota Opera’s “Dead Man Walking.” This is Babcock’s MCSO and Twin Cities debut. We hope she comes our way again.

Bizet’s “Carmen” was a flop at its premiere in 1875. Today it’s one of the world’s most-produced operas. The story — a rejected lover becomes a stalker becomes a murderer — has always been troubling and can be downright offensive today. The music is glorious. The first half is filled with hummable hits, starting with the first notes of the prelude and the rousing Toreador march.

MCSO’s production — a cast of 11, an ensemble of 23 and a 33-piece orchestra led by Brian DeMaris — delivers on the music. The Ruins Courtyard has amazing acoustics, even with a helicopter passing overhead and motorcycles roaring by on West River Parkway. At the start of Act III, just after the intermission, a rebellious little bird joined in, chirping and trilling from high on a wall. The sky was changing, night was falling, and it was altogether lovely.

Lamb smartly added dancers from local company Zorongo Flamenco to the production. Directed by Susana di Palma, they bring their own heat.

The stage is a bit plain, basically a raised, raked oval. The men’s military costumes (and Escamillo’s toreador get-up) are grand, but the women’s costumes (except for Carmen’s) are disappointing. “Carmen” is always an opportunity to go big with ruffles. (Don’t even get us started on updated versions of the opera, with the cast in 20th-century clothes. Shudder.) On opening night, the orchestra was a bit speedy during the card scene, the effervescent duet between Frasquita and Mercedes. Siena Forest and Nadia Fayad had to rush (in French!) to keep up. None of these is a reason to skip the chance to hear Bizet’s music live and see a performer born to the role. So far, Audrey Babcock is our favorite Carmen, and we’ve seen quite a few.

“Carmen” has five more performances: tonight (Tuesday, July 17), Thursday, Friday, Sunday and next Tuesday, all at 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($50-125).

The picks

Now at the Guthrie: “The Legend of Georgia McBride.” Matthew Lopez’s musical looks at gender, identity and cultural assumptions through the eyes of Casey (Jayson Speters), a failed Elvis impersonator who finds new life and superstardom in drag. Associate artistic director Jeffrey Meanza makes his Guthrie directorial debut with this big-hearted summer comedy. It’s in previews through Thursday, opens Friday and stays put on the proscenium through Aug. 26. FMI and tickets (single tickets start at $15 for preview performances; regular run $28-77).

Wednesday at the American Swedish Institute: Cantus: “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” Launched last year as an experiment, Cantus’ summer chamber series returns with a program of songs passed down from parents to children. Includes Copland’s “Old Amerian Songs.” 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($20 adults/$10 children). Also Thursday at the Museum of Russian Art; sold out.

Wednesday at Bockley Gallery: “New Poets of Native Nations” book launch. Edited by Heid E. Erdrich, this is already considered a landmark anthology. Featuring 21 Native poets of the 21st century — their first books were all published after 2000 — it’s an essential collection of poets writing now. Erdrich will appear with Gwen Westerman, Margaret Noodin, the Asiganaak Singers and others. 7 p.m. Hosted by Birchbark Books. This is the first comprehensive anthology of American Indian poetry since “Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry,” published in 1988.

Peter Bonerz, Peter Boyle and Robert Forster in a scene from "Medium Cool."
Paramount Pictures
Peter Bonerz, Peter Boyle and Robert Forster in a scene from “Medium Cool.”

Wednesday at the Walker: “Medium Cool.” The Walker continues its Summer Heat ’68 film series with Haskell Wexler’s portrait of Chicago at the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, seen through the eyes of a fictional TV cameraman. Made with guidance from political activists of the day and famed Chicago-based broadcaster Studs Terkel, with incidental music by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. 7 p.m. in the Cinema. FMI and tickets ($10/8). Also Friday, July 20.

Michelle Kinney
Courtesy of the artist
Michelle Kinney

Thursday at Studio Z: Michelle Kinney: What We Have Here. A member of Jelloslave (cello-cello-tablas-drums), Butterfly (pipa-veena-cello), the improvising ensemble Cherry Spoon Collective (anything goes) and other creative collaborations, Kinney has always been an artist worth hearing. A self-described “genre-hopping cellista,” she’s also a composer, and that’s what Thursday’s performance will be all about. With seven other musicians, Kinney will present several of her own original jazz compositions. No surprise this is part of Steve Kenny’s All Originals Jazz Series. Studio Z is one of the best listening rooms in the Twin Cities. Doors at 7:30, music at 8. $10 at the door.

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