Something's climatically amiss in Olney Theatre Center's staging of "La Tragedie de Carmen," Peter Brook's version of "Carmen." The forecast calls for a heat wave, but the production remains stranded in the cold.
The ingredients of Brook's radical early 1980s reinvention of Georges Bizet's familiar opera have been stirred into director Jim Petosa's revival: streamlined libretto, pared-down cast and dirt-strewn setting. What hasn't made the trip to Olney -- not on this occasion, at least -- is anything to make the pulse race.
Petosa staged this "Carmen" last year in Olney's smaller black-box space. Moving it to the main stage appears not to have been beneficial. In his efforts at stripping "Carmen" to its sensual, theatrical core, Brook sought to dynamite our expectations about the opera. His reductive take heaved with sweat and sex and style. Bizet buffs will have to argue the merits of condensing such classic episodes as the "Cigarette Song"; what Brook and collaborators Jean-Claude Carriere and Marius Constant created was a "Carmen" with a more urgent story to tell.
On Olney's main stage, however, Brook's handiwork feels remote. (If any production could illustrate the shortcomings of the barnlike Olney space -- which will be replaced next month with an impressive new 440-seat theater next door -- this one does the trick.) Brook's placing the action in an arena -- much of the story occurs in a sand pit -- was meant not only to envelop an audience in Carmen's world of seduction, but also to provide a context for the blistering competition to possess her between Don Jose (Darren T. Anderson) and Escamillo (Scott Skiba).
James Kronzer's set nostalgically brings to mind the spareness of Brook's production. Placed on a traditional proscenium, though, the staging is at war with the unconventionality of Brook's concept. (In one scene, too, the English surtitles for the French libretto, projected against the back wall of the stage, are obscured by the bars of Carmen's jail cell.) The sense of arm's-length exposure is reinforced by the surprisingly mild performances. No trace of combustibility flickers between Anderson and Stephanie Chigas's Carmen; the rather platonic idea of attraction fostered here deals the work a devastating blow. If Carmen has no magnetism, cannot draw us effortlessly into the whirlpool of her romantic deceptions, it really doesn't matter how well she sings.
Chigas does, in fact, sing the part capably. Generally, the musicianship is satisfactory, and the 14-piece orchestra conducted by William Lumpkin injects the piece with a badly needed dose of instrumental energy. Of the principals, Skiba is the sole embodiment of sun-baked passion. His delivery of the classic "Toreador Song," as well-known as any in opera, commendably eludes triteness. He imbues it with an appealing brashness.
The costume designer, Sekula Sinadinovski, comes up with a singularly unflattering outfit for Carmen, and the unsightly black wigs sported by a pair of religious acolytes look as if they were purchased during a Halloween closeout sale. It should be noted, however, that a woman seated on the aisle in Row H on Sunday contentedly hummed her way through the 90-minute production, and at one pivotal moment exclaimed "L'amour!" to nobody in particular. For her, anyway, there was something in this "Carmen" about love.
La Tragedie de Carmen, by Georges Bizet. Adapted by Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carriere and Marius Constant. Directed by Jim Petosa. Lighting, Mark Lanks; sound, Jarett Pisani. With Saundra DeAthos, Scott Fortier, Ian LeValley. Approximately 90 minutes. Through July 17 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.