Glass Meets Cocteau: Beauty or Beast? : Opera review: It’s a bold idea to use music with the filmmaker’s ‘La Belle et la Be^te.’ So why doesn’t it work?
Philip Glass’ “La Belle et la Be^te,” billed as an “opera for ensemble and film” and based on Jean Cocteau’s famous 1946 film, is an interesting experiment that doesn’t quite work. It received its Southland premiere Thursday at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater, courtesy of the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts.
Glass has stripped the original soundtrack (including music by Georges Auric) from the film and composed a score of 20 sections, including an overture, which is played while the film is projected on a screen behind the seven musicians of the Philip Glass Ensemble and four singers who take on the parts of the cinematic characters. The new score incorporates the original dialogue matched to the screen action, but the spoken dialogue is now sung. Supertitles projected minimal translations during the screening.
The problem was not that Glass did not write some effective, arresting music, exploiting timbres and colors and shifting mood tellingly. He composed haunting recurring leitmotifs, particularly a lyric, rocking theme associated with love and yearning. (It alternated between a minor and a major second, and often was punctuated by descending arpeggio flourishes.)
There were others: a pulsing, driving motive that early on established dramatic urgency; a rapid running figure that blossomed through two ascending octaves, and the same figure in a poignantly slowed inversion. Close listening would reveal repeated, developed and integrated figures.
The big problem was in the frequent disjunction between the rhythm of the screen images and the rhythm of the musical phrases of the through-composed (never silent) score. Consider the scene in which Beauty fights back her terror and disgust after waking from her faint at first seeing the Beast. On screen, Josette Day goes through a series of extreme emotions, but Glass’ music continues an undifferentiated regular pulsation.
Or recall Jean Marais as the Beast, reeling into the forest as he tries to contain his pain at Beauty’s mere mention of her previous suitor, Avenant. Again, the score, unlike traditional film music, reflects no change in the curve of emotion. Image and sound run more often parallel than integrated.
In most of his previous theater works, Glass was involved with the staging and production concepts from the start. Here he has chosen a fixed, established image, and the handicap, while a challenging trump of rule-bound serialism, proves a disadvantage. The composer is at his best in setting general dramatic mood (Beauty running through the palace to find the ailing Beast, for instance), but not in pinpointing the particular. And of course the film is made of particulars.
It is this problem that raises the specter of cultural vandalism. “La Belle et la Be^te” is the second in a trilogy of works Glass intended as homage to Cocteau. (The others are “Orphee” and “Les Enfants Terribles.”) The 1946 film remains intact elsewhere (Glass has secured the film rights and even paid the Auric estate not to use that composer’s music). So it’s not exactly as if he’s drawn a mustache on the “Mona Lisa.” Still, he has demonstrated that the integrity of the original is not tampered with so easily or with impunity.
Nonetheless, the technical aspects of writing and presenting the work--merely in coordinating sound and film--must be acknowledged as a tour de force, even though the coordination wasn’t ideal Thursday. The ensemble was nearing the end of a 16-city tour, and perhaps a weariness had set in. Nobody in the audience could have reasonably expected perfect synchronization between the live singers and the film actors, but the lapses that occurred appeared more numerous than warranted. They did break the illusion. Michael Riesman conducted.
The virtuosic, authoritative singers, who sometimes had to speed through vocal lines to fit the duration of the quicker original dialogue, included mezzo-soprano Janice Felty (La Belle), baritone Gregory Purnhagen (La Be^te, the Prince and Avenant), soprano Kate Egan (the two sisters) and baritone Zheng Zhou (La Pere, Ludovic, Usurier). They sang from varying locations on stage, interacted to some extent and occasionally, when not more actively involved, looked at the events on screen.
As did Glass, who was one of the three keyboard players. Dan Dryden was the sound mixer. Everyone was amplified, and the resulting sound proved tubby and bass-heavy.
* Philip Glass’ “La Belle et la Be^te” will repeat today at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater in Westwood. $13 (students) to $36.50. (310) 825-2101.