Love, death, jealousy, obsession, violence - these are at the heart of Bizet's Carmen.
Distill the four-hour opera down to its essence - as Peter Brook and his collaborators have done in their 80-minute adaptation - and presumably these core characteristics become more intense.
But director Jim Petosa's production at Olney Theatre Center is surprisingly lacking in intensity. Despite a strong lead performance - powerfully acted as well as sung - by Stephanie Chigas, La Tragedie de Carmen has an almost clinical feel.
A little history on Brook's condensed Carmen: The acclaimed British-born director and founder of Paris' International Center of Theatre Research created this mini-version in 1981 in collaboration with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and composer Marius Constant. Subsequently produced on Broadway (initially in French and later in English), it received a special Tony Award in 1984.
Tampering with Carmen isn't new. Prosper Merimee's 1845 novel about fatal attraction and/or Bizet's 1875 opera have been made into numerous ballets and movies (everything from Charlie Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen to Carmen Jones, set in a black Army camp with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II). In 1990, HBO even broadcast Carmen on Ice (starring Katarina Witt).
So it isn't necessarily a travesty to trim the opera down to four singers, two actors and 14 musicians (ably conducted here by William Lumpkin), or to perform textual and musical surgery and reshuffling. But for all of its liberties, Petosa's production does little to illuminate the material.
As was done in Brook's New York production, Olney's set designer, James Kronzer, situates the action in and around a circle of dirt, simulating a bullring. The image is appropriate, not only because of Carmen's relationship with the bullfighter Escamillo (suave Scott Skiba), but also because of the tempting and taunting and life-and-death struggles that occur in the story.
Instead of seeming earthy, however, when Olney's performers muck about in the dirt, the result seems contrived and overly arty, lessening the emotional stakes. Another part of the problem is that, as Don Jose, the soldier who falls under Carmen's spell, Darren T. Anderson's stage presence is leaden, and his singing doesn't have a clear tone.
Further distancing the audience at Olney is the fact that Petosa - who originally directed Brook's Carmen as a workshop at Boston University and then at Olney last season - chose to use the French version (with English surtitles).
Even so, there are moments when Chigas' singing transcends the production's shortcomings. And a duet with Saundra DeAthos as her romantic rival, Micaela, is one of the high points of the evening.
Chigas also infuses the action with vigor and sensuality. Early on, after Anderson's Don Jose lights her cigarette, Chigas takes the extinguished match and runs it along her forearm. Later, she snuffs out two candles with her bare hands. But though Chigas' Carmen is a woman who literally plays with fire, Petosa's staging never generates enough heat.
A brief update on Olney's $8.2 million building project. Construction is almost complete and subscribers are selecting seats in the new 429-seat theater that opens in August with The Miracle Worker. Meanwhile, the new outdoor amphitheater, called the Root Family Stage at Will's Place, opened yesterday with A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Together with the existing theater and the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, this will give Olney four performance spaces. All four will continue to be used, says managing director Leslie Rehbein Marqua, depending on which is best-suited for a particular production.
La Tragedie de Carmen
Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and July 14. Through July 17