It’s over 20 years since Philip Glass’s reworking of Jean Cocteau’s film La Belle et La Bête premiered in New York in 1994, and 70 years since the film itself first screened. However, the performance – which Glass himself has described as “essentially a theatrical music event, not a cinematic event” – still has a spellbinding power.
La Belle et La Bête was the second in Glass’s Cocteau trilogy, which began with Orphée, where he used the film’s scenario as the basis for the libretto of a chamber opera, and finished with a dance/theatre work based on Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants Terribles. For La Belle et La Bête, Glass removed Georges Auric’s music and the dialogue from Cocteau’s film and set all the original words in a through-composed operatic score, to be performed live by singers and a small orchestra, with the famous black and white film screening behind. Originally, Glass added a chamber orchestra to his own six-member ensemble of keyboards and winds, while six singers played the nine characters. In the touring version seen here, there are six musicians and four singers, conducted by Michael Riesman, who has been a member of the Philip Glass Ensemble since 1974 and worked with Glass on the films Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi.
In the opening moments of the performance, it’s hard to know quite where to look as your eye moves between the musicians, the singers, the film and the subtitles. The film looks so old-fashioned at first glance that there were giggles among the audience at some of the effects. But before long both the film, with its erotic symbolism, and the hauntingly beautiful music weave a spell that at times takes you into an almost trance-like state.
The film itself has a dream-like quality and though the special effects are rudimentary by today’s standards the surreal imagery still captures the imagination: the candelabras held by living arms, the disembodied limbs, the eyes and faces in the decorative fireplace that follow Belle, the gates and doors that open by themselves. There are also many humorous moments – some intentional such as Belle’s sisters shooing hens from their sedan chairs or Belle’s handsome but vain beau Avenant tossing his hair; others, which are more to do with the passing of time. The Beast with his hirsute face, sad eyes and smoking hands (after a kill) provoked some titters, as did actor Jean Marais’s effete appearance when transformed into the Prince.
Variations of the Beauty and the Beast story go back centuries. First written down in 1756 by Madame Leprince de Beaumont, the story spawned numerous theatrical and literary versions during the 19th century. Bruno Bettleheim included it in his famous 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment, in which he analysed fairy tales using Freudian psychology. Expanding on the idea of Beauty and the Beast being about young women overcoming a fear of sex, Bettleheim analysed the symbolism of the tale including Belle’s unusually close attachment to her father, the pointed spikiness of the rose her father steals for her from the Beast’s garden, and the sorceress who transformed the Prince into the Beast.
For Glass, Cocteau’s film is an allegory about creativity and the life of the artist. In a programme note, he writes: “To me, the focus of this work – the creative process itself – has always been clear… Once we begin to see the film in this way, it becomes hard to see the journey of the Father to the Chateau itself in the opening moments of the film as anything other than a journey of the artist into his ‘unconscious’. The Chateau itself is then seen as the very site of the creative process where, through an extraordinary alchemy of the spirit, the ordinary world of imagination takes flight (as seen quite literally in the last moment of the film).” It’s a fascinating way to view the film, adding another layer of meaning to the Beast’s rose, key, magical gloves and mirror as symbols of his transformation, achieved through the power of love.
Glass’s music is full of the composer’s typical motifs: the cascading arpeggios, the shimmering, looping chords, the off-set rhythms and mesmerising repetitions. It works wonderfully well in creating an initially eerie atmosphere for the film, with tones brightening as Belle feels increasingly comfortable with the Beast. Glass is attuned to the film’s atmosphere and visual effects. He uses distorted bell tones for the nightly clock chimes as the Beast appears for dinner, and when Belle faints away on first seeing him the music stops in its tracks.
The vocal lines enhance the emotion of the film. Glass set himself the complex challenge of writing the score so that the singing is synchronised with the on-screen actors. The synchronisation wasn’t always spot-on, particularly early on in the film, which does become a distraction, though it is well done overall. The singing from the four vocalists, who stand quietly in front of microphones rather than dramatising their roles, is impressive.
As Belle, mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn has a lovely bright, shiny tone to her voice. In the roles of the Beast, Avenant and the Prince, Gregory Purnhagen’s baritone has a warm, mellow quality, which emphasises the loving, honourable nature of the man beneath the beastly charm. The singing from the pair as Belle and the Beast become close is beautiful and very moving. Baritone Peter Stewart who voices Belle’s Father and brother Ludovic, and soprano Marie Mascari who plays Belle’s two nasty sisters, both do a good job of differentiating characters. La Belle et La Bête is an unusual event, but a hypnotic one that sends you home feeling as if you have been in a dream.
On the way back from the recital centre, I joined the throng following Les Tambours de Feu through Melbourne’s city streets. With their ritualistic drumming and pyrotechnics, the Basque company Deabru Beltzak certainly fill the air with a sense of frenzied excitement: a lively way to announce that the Festival has arrived in town.
La Belle et La Bête has two more performances at Melbourne Recital Centre at 2pm and 7pm on Saturday October 8