Christina Sajous was in her own way a memorable Carmen in “Carmen: An Afro-Cuban jazz musical” at the Olney Theatre Center. (Stan Barouh)
Classical music critic/The Classical Beat

Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” has proved one of the most adaptable works in the operatic canon; I’ve seen flamenco “Carmens,” stripped-down “Carmens,” even “Carmen” on ice. On Saturday night, “Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical” arrived at the Olney Theatre Center, kitted out with a catchy jazz score by Arturo O’Farrill, a new book by Moisés Kaufman and Eduardo Machado, and some dynamic choreography by Sergio Trujillo that made the opening number — set in a Havana cafe in 1958 — seem to augur well for the evening. Yet I was left questioning how innovative it really was.

Opera houses don’t get to rewrite the works they present, but theaters do. This “Carmen” started with a spoken introduction by Mercedes (Michelle Alves) about Cuba and Carmen herself, offering the possibility of a different ending to her story.

And there were some small but salient plot twists. Updating the action to 1958 meant that the soldiers were Batista’s men, while Carmen (Christina Sajous) and her band are smuggling guns to Castro’s forces, which lends them dignity and gives a whole different complexion to José’s switch of allegiance. Also changed is his relationship with Micaela, his village sweetheart: In this version, his ambivalence stems from the fact that she is wealthy and he feels beholden to her. These innovations sharpened the characters’ relationships; I wish an opera house could incorporate them once in a while.

But I was expecting a whole new work, a “Carmen” transformed by a creative team of heavy-hitters. And what I got was still basically Bizet’s “Carmen,” with its familiar plot and familiar tunes. Updating an opera’s action doesn’t transform it — indeed, it’s standard practice in today’s opera houses. The Washington National Opera’s “Carmen” this past September was set in 20th­century South America; I’ve seen “Carmen” set in Franco’s Spain, and although I can’t remember if I’ve seen one set in Cuba, it’s certainly been done, from the Latvian National Opera to the InSeries’s adaptation “Carmen in Havana” with the Washington Ballet earlier this month.

Sajous turned out to be a wonderful strong Carmen, managing to define the character on her own terms and playing her as a savvy businesswoman so beautiful she was convincingly beguiling without resorting to sex-kitten shtick. But it was telling that she made her entrance with stock gestures familiar from operatic “Carmens”: striding over to a pool of water and blotting her sweaty brow with a wet handkerchief. The creators may have thought they were bringing “Carmen” into the modern world, but in fact they were getting pulled into “Carmen’s” orbit.

This was also true of the vocal numbers. The instrumental music was vital and fresh as performed by a terrific onstage band led by Christopher Youstra; but the songs hewed close to Bizet’s originals. I would have welcomed a real jazz take on José’s “Flower Song” or the swaggering “Toreador Song” of the boxer Camilo (Caesar Samayoa), but both presented the familiar tunes with new words and lighter, mic’d voices; and I’d hoped for new songs, but there were none. The result, overall, was closer to “Carmen Jones,” the 1943 Broadway adaptation of the opera, than to a true jazz reimagining of the work.

As the 100-minute performance wore on, I wasn’t quite sure what this ambitious undertaking was trying to achieve: It often seemed an unsatisfying no man’s land between opera and musical. It closed with a theatrical pendant to the introduction: a spoken coda over the tableau of José collapsed across Carmen’s dead body. It was deflating to have this dramatic climax veiled by a trite narration about Cuba and its visitors, while the ensemble reprised the opening chorus — underlining that the promises of this music’s first appearance was not, alas, borne out.

Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical continues through March 6 at the Olney Theatre Center, olneytheatre.org.