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Choreographing Carmen: Wheeldon vs. Mamoulian

In a recent New York Times dance column (Jan. 15), Alastair Macaulay takes Christopher Wheeldon to task for the obtuse choreography he has inflicted on the Met’s new Carmen. As Macauley truly observes, Wheeldon’s decision to cast the act three entr’acte — a fragrant flute and harp piece, one of Bizet’s most beloved miniatures — as an erotic pas de deux defies understanding.
Bizet, of course, intended this music to be played with the curtain down. Wheeldon is far from the first person to attempt performing it with the curtain up. In fact, a film version of Carmen — planned but never made by Rouben Mamoulian — memorably reconsiders the “action” of Bizet’s sublime entr’acte.
Mamoulian (1897-1987) is a forgotten hero of American musical theater. His Broadway credits include DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s Porgy (1922), Porgy and Bess (1935), Oklahoma! (1943), and Carousel (1945) — and these shows would have played far differently without him. His roots were in Russian experimental theater – and Mamoulian, in his American heyday, was a relentless experimenter.
Writing a book about immigrants in the performance arts (Artists in Exile, 2008), I experienced my Mamoulian epiphany upon discovering his greatest of all movie musicals: Love Me Tonight (1932) with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. A subversive tour de force, it binds music and action in ways never before imagined. The film begins with a daybreak sequence using Parisian street sounds as a precise accompaniment to pantomime; the rhythmic ingredients, added one at a time, include chimes, a sledgehammer, snoring, sweeping, and a radio whose music becomes a synchronized symphonic soundtrack to the growing din.
Mamoulian invented his first daybreak “symphony of noises” for Porgy, and created a second for Porgy and Bess. Rummaging through the Mamoulian Archives at the Library of Congress, I came across the script for the Porgy and Bess sequence, laid out in fastidious detail. The “occupational sounds” change meter from 4/4 to 2/4 en route to matching tempo with Gershwin’s score. (Rarely heard today, this “occupational humoresque” is restored on a Decca Porgy and Bess recording conducted by John Mauceri.)
But my most remarkable discovery, at the Library of Congress, was a complete 1953 script for a film version of Carmen, co-written by Mamoulian and Maxwell Anderson, and aligned with the piano/vocal score. The flute-and-harp entr’acte is repositioned and made to accompany the death of Don Jose’s mother, witnessed by her son (in pantomime). It leads directly to the act four entr’acte, during which Escamillo and Carmen (in separate rooms) dress for the impending bullfight. The resulting interpolated sequence potently ignites the final trajectory ending in Carmen’s death.
Mamoulian’s staging of the opera’s Prelude is startling. Carmen gallops toward Seville, late for work. At the “fate” motif (Wheeldon here introduces a predictable and superfluous dance number for Carmen and Jose), Mamoulian pans the interior of Carmen’s destination: a cigarette factory: “It is a large hall, with many windows, filled with rows of long, narrow tables at which the factory girls are sitting, making cigars. Some of them smoke while they work. Because of the heat, the girls are in various states of undress.” The unlikely juxtaposition of Bizet’s sinuous melody, snaking towards climax, and the bustle of the smoky workplace is jarring and provocative: a music/theater dialectic. It is pure Mamoulian.
The saga of Mamoulian and opera is ultimately frustrating. In his twenties, at Rochester’s Eastman Theater, he created an American Opera Company whose productions included Maeterlinck’s Sister Beatrice (appropriated by Meyerhold for one of his signature productions) with choreography by Martha Graham and music by Otto Luening; in later life, he considered this his most inspired creation. Porgy and Bess, on Broadway, was doubtless the most detailed operatic staging New York had ever seen; Mamoulian separately directed every member of the chorus. Production photographs preserve the indelible stage pictures he painstakingly created for Robbins’s murder and the second act hurricane. Oklahoma! and Carousel came after that. Rudolf Bing tried to lure Mamoulian to the Met; having just embarked on a Huckleberry Finn with Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, Mamoulian said no.
Why was Mamoulian’s Carmen never filmed? It was self-evidently a labor of love (his wife presented him with a leather-bound typescript as a 66th birthday present). Bing was aware of Mamoulian’s project and wanted him to use his Met Carmen, Rise Stevens. Mamoulian wanted a more demonic singing actress. No evidence has come to light that Mamoulian found a Carmen for his movie.
In truth, the Mamoulian/Anderson Carmen script is for the most part disappointingly tame — nothing like the brave Hollywood Mamoulian of the 1930s. Its flashes of genius are fated to survive in the imagination alone. I could think of nothing else upon encountering Carmen at the Met last week.

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