Sometimes opera performances are dominated by a single singer. That was the case Friday evening when Mill City Summer Opera opened its new staging of Bizet's "Carmen" at Mill City Museum in Minneapolis.
Mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock has sung the part of Carmen more than 150 times. The experience showed in her nuanced, smoldering portrayal of the fiery gypsy stalked by an obsessive ex-lover. Whether unzipping an orange suggestively or running a practiced foot along an army lieutenant's groin, Babcock's Carmen simmered with sensuality. But her proud, principled embrace of the bohemian lifestyle — and her refusal to be trammeled by the men in her life — lent ballast to the sex kitten manipulations.
Seductive? Yes, but Babcock was a thinking Carmen, too, a woman who knew her worth and had no intention of letting it be diminished.
Vocally Babcock had the part nailed, too. Light and playful in numbers such as the Act 1 set-piece "Habanera," her voice expanded thrillingly in the later confrontations with Don José, while never losing a satisfying bloom and plenitude.
Compared with Babcock's consistently galvanizing performance, the rest of the production made an occasionally patchy impression.
Act 1 suffered from some labored tempos, and generally lacked the fizz required to set the drama running. Carmen's famous "Seguidilla" lumbered to begin with, never quite recovering its infectious sensual energy.
Director Fenlon Lamb blocked the crowd scenes effectively, although the gorgeously wafting, kinetic music of the girls from the cigarette factory was hitched to a disappointingly static stage image.
The Act 2 encounter between Carmen and Don José had sharper focus. Throughout the famous "Flower Song," Babcock kept her back turned, in simmering counterpoint to Bizet's gorgeous melody. Tenor Adam Diegel sang the aria passionately, with a ringing sense of romantic yearning.
But he had been harboring an illness before opening night. For Acts 3 and 4, his part was sung from the wings by understudy Adam Lowe while Diegel mimed onstage and continued acting. Lowe sang valiantly, but the climactic final scene at the bullring where Don José erupts in violence inevitably lost some of its visceral impact with Diegel voiceless.
Among the supporting characters, Luis Alejandro Orozco sang a stylish if slightly underpowered "Toreador Song" as Escamillo. Karen Slack's hugely committed Micaëla was a touch overwrought by comparison — more a Verdi than a Bizet voice on this showing.
Sarah Bahr's Spanish-flavored costumes brought considerable visual flair to the production, especially in the context of a minimal set design based on a circular stage area with some chairs and tables.
The outdoor setting of the Mill City Museum's Ruin Courtyard framed the action atmospherically, but brought a succession of intrusive noises via traffic and, at one point, a helicopter.
For Babcock's Carmen, though, it was worth persisting. She owned the character and left provocative questions about female sexuality, and the male urge to control it, quivering in the night air at the opera's gory conclusion.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.