The origins of Philip Glass’ “La Belle et la Bête” are indeed interesting. For many years Glass has had an interest in French film, and in particular a fascination with the works of Jean Cocteau, and in 1994 he decided to write a film score/opera based on Cocteau’s 1946 film of the same name, which was to be the third work by Glass based on a work by Cocteau. However, this was to be no normal film score, this was to be a groundbreaking innovation, for Glass superimposed onto the original film a soundtrack which required him having to replace all the original spoken dialogue with sung dialogue. Moreover, it had to be completed in a way that made it appear that the actors in the film were actually mouthing the vocal lines – something he completed successfully using computers to help synchronize the process.
The film is certainly a remarkable achievement, and Glass’ vision was realized with great success. However, transposing it to a work for the stage, to be performed as an opera, has a number of particular problems. In films, it is possible for scenes to change with great frequency and rapidity, as is the case in “La Belle et la Bete.” In fact, there are 18 scenes plus introductory titles (which became the overture) over a period of approximately 90 minutes. Each scene, therefore, on average lasts just less than five minutes, a fact which has the potential to disrupt the flow of a staged drama, especially if the director insists on significant set changes. While clearly this is not a fatal flaw, it certainly requires imagination and careful handling by the director and the scenographer. For this production at the Slovenian National Opera in Balet Ljubljana, the director Matjaz Faric and his scenographer, Marko Japeli can be considered to have been partially successful.
Film To Stage
Attempting to present each scene as distinct, requiring the stage to be reset for each new scene was always going to be a problem. However, this is what Faric and Japlei tried to accomplish, and although they showed a great deal of imagination and met with a degree of success, ultimately it became distracting and noisy, although it did not impinge upon the flow of the drama, which was always kept on course. The set consisted primarily of black walls with doors that the stage crew quickly moved into different positions for each scene. Relevant props, including chairs, tables, and beds were speedily brought on and off the stage as needed. However, there was simply too much extraneous movement. Faric also made frequent use of video images, projected onto the back of the stage, and this worked well on two levels; firstly it allowed certain subjects to be introduced, such as Magnificence, the horse, or the ships at the port, in a natural and clear manner, and secondly, it drew attention away from the irritating set changes.
Faric also acted as the choreographer, and he certainly had his work cut out, especially in the opening scenes which are very fast moving. At one point, he had to manage Simon Podjaversek, who was playing the parts of both the Usurer and the Port Official, and who was required to appear as both characters within seconds of each other – something Faric managed to organize with complete success. Indeed, the choreography was of the highest standard, and added to many of the pleasing mise-en-scene.
As with many fairy tales, magic plays a central role, and in this case, it is found inside the castle walls of the Beast. It was wonderfully created, not just through the use of props such as magic mirrors and the like, but also through the use of ghostly dancers who lived in the shadowy realms of the castle. The dancing not only added to the eerie goings-on, but also enlivened the musical interludes with their otherworldly movements. Moreover, Faric was not afraid to draw directly upon the Cocteau’s film; in the “dinner scene,” for example, Beauty sits at the table, as disembodied hands offer her dishes of food. The ambiance created by Faric, Japlei, and the lighting designer, Andrej Hajdinjal, was of one of unremitting darkness, which successfully highlighted the mysteries and fear associated with the castle, as well as the almost never-ending gloom surrounding Beauty’s family, a family riven by petty jealousies, venality, and murderous desires. The costume designer, Alan Hranitelj, more than played his part, by creating a series of interestingly styled costumes, which were almost entirely in black. They certainly added to the dark atmosphere surrounding the drama, yet were never monotonously dull. Beauty’s costumes in blue and dark blue, with a touch of red being the only exceptions, and introduced just the right amount of contrast to set her apart.
One of the many attractions of “La Belle et la Bete” is that it is a work that can be read on many levels. Certainly, it can be seen as a fairy story, which no doubt accounted for the welcome smattering of children in the audience, and most definitely as a love story; Glass, himself, believing it to be the equal, in this respect, to “Romeo and Juliette” or “Tristan and Isolde.” Yet for Glass it is an allegorical tale of the path taken by an artist, of his journey into the world of his unconscious self, in which the creative process represented by Beauty and the primal world of nature represented by the Beast, having been transformed by magic, allow the imagination to fly, and it was this aspect that the SNG Opera chose to highlight on its website promoting the production.
However, the performance itself was far less exigent. Thus, added to the fairytale magic of the performance we watched as Beauty’s love for the Beast grows, and in the final scene, whilst the cast is lowered down below the stage, Beauty and her Beast, now transformed into a Prince (artist), are elevated towards the heavens. The audience was, therefore, free to engage with story on different levels, and to take from the production what it wished.
And Now, the Music
The musical side of the production was under the direction Ziva Ploj Persuh, who put in a polished performance conducting the Orkester SNG Opera in balet Ljubljana. She produced an energetic reading which drove the narrative forward. Persuh maintained an excellent control of the tempi and dynamics, which both reflected and created the changing nature of the drama, as it quickly moved from scene to scene, capturing the underlying pulse of the work. She was respectful to the singers’ needs and was also successful in exploiting the interesting orchestral textures of the score.
The part of La Belle was undertaken by mezzo-soprano, Nuska Drascek Rojko, and although she did not give a particularly nuanced reading, she did produce an engaging performance, which was able to hold the attention of, and to elicit sympathy from the audience. Her acting was always secure and convincing, and her voice dominated the stage, overly so at times, and although revealing a clear tone, it often sounded too strident and lacking in variation, without the necessary gentle tenderness that would have added greater depth to her portrayal. Her Beauty was anxious, frightened, loyal and loving, but she never managed to display the sweet naïve purity that lies at the heart of the character. Yet, it was still a pleasing, strongly defined performance which provided a good focal point around which the drama flowed.
Filip Bandzak looked very much the part in the role of La Bête. Dressed as expected in a sharply contoured black costume, with a blood red face and curled horns on top of his head, he cut a substantial and menacing figure, magnified by platformed boots which led to him hobbling around the stage in monstrous fashion. This was not a sophisticated Beast. Bandzak sang well but failed to give any sense of the Beast’s noble sentiments, tender though he could be in parts, and despite the fine skills he displayed in coloring the voice. In terms of volume, he was always second best to Rojko’s La Belle, which also detracted slightly from his impact. Yet, like Rojko’s, his performance although flawed in parts, was convincing and strongly drawn.
Beauty’s two sisters, Félicie and Adélaide were splendidly essayed by Stefica Stipancevic and Rebeka Radovan respectively. Both acted out their parts with great skill and effectiveness. Working as a team, they complained and bullied, threatened and manipulated in equal measure. Radovan sang with energy and skill, and delivered a solid performance. It was Stipancevic, however, who arguably put in the strongest performance of the evening. Her vocal control was excellent; she phrased each line with thought and intelligence, eliciting meaning through subtle dynamic and colorful inflections that brought attention to the relatively minor character.
Le Père was played by Robert Vrcon, who put in a secure performance as the put-upon father to a dysfunctional family. His voice has a warm texture, and he displayed a solid technique, phrasing his lines with finesse.
Ludovic was played by Robert Brezovar, and was suitably dislikable and dissolute. Although he started quite slowly in the opening scenes, he quickly warmed to the role, singing with vigor and strength. He brought a sufficient depth to the role to make him unfortunately believable.
The role of Beauty’s suitor, Avenant, was performed by Luka Ortar. Another dissolute ne’er-do-well, who received his just reward when the Goddess Diana kills him as he is trying to steal the Beast’s treasure, Ortar has a vibrant and flexible voice, with a rich palette of vocal colors at his disposal, which he used skillfully to characterize the part.
The roles of Port Official and the Usurer were both undertaken by Simon Podjaversek, who acquitted himself well.
Although this could hardly be classed as a perfect performance of “La Belle et La Bête,” it was certainly a success. It was an engaging and gripping piece of music theatre, in which all the participants made positive and convincing contributions. Musically it delighted, dramatically it captivated, but most of all, it was excellent entertainment. Whether one viewed the work as a fairy tale, as a symbolic transformation of the artist or simply as a love story, the production was music theatre as it should be.