For many of us, when it comes to festival fare, a work by Philip Glass is hard to beat. Beginning with Einstein on the Beach in 1992, Melbourne Festival has presented a number of his compositions, including a riveting performance of his opera Akhnaten in 2003. A second, non-festival season of Einstein on the Beach was presented here in 2013 and the Adelaide Festival featured all three of Glass’s operatic trilogy in 2014. So far, Melbourne audiences have had to be content with the Met’s Live in HD version of Satyagraha.
When Einstein on the Beach was presented the second time, I wondered whether the excitement and shock of the completely new would be replaced by boredom as the opera moved at glacial speed for four and a half hours. Not so. If anything, the work seemed shorter and admiration for the powers of concentration and phenomenal control of the performers grew along with a fuller appreciation of the achievement of its creators. Although only ninety minutes long, the recent Melbourne Recital Centre performances of La Belle et la Bête evoked a similar positive response, one that only increased with a repeated viewing.
This year, as part of the Melbourne Festival, La Belle et La Bête with the Philip Glass Ensemble was presented at the Melbourne Recital Centre on October 7 & 8. Presented as an opera/film La Belle et la Bête began as the second part of a trilogy of theatre works based on the films of Jean Cocteau. With the permission of Cocteau’s estate, the original composer and those performers still alive, the original sound track has been eliminated entirely and replaced by singers and instrumentalists who synchronise their performance with the film.
This task is made more difficult by spoken dialogue being faster than sung dialogue. Even though Michael Riesman has been a member of the Philip Glass Ensemble since 1974 and has conducted a multitude of Glass works, he was faced with an almost impossible task. Watching the film without the benefit of a click track he had to ensure that tempi were adjusted so that the sung text corresponded with the actors’ lip movements. Since their eyes were generally fixed on their scores, it was apparent that the singers relied on Riesman to keep them on track.
Although synchronisation was occasionally far from perfect, in the end it didn’t seem to matter. Riesman’s elastic rhythms ensured that the recitative style of singing reflected the spoken dialogue convincingly enough. In the end, it was just another aspect of the suspension of disbelief that Cocteau requested in the prologue.
The substitution of a soundtrack is an enormous step. In his diary of the making of the film Cocteau wrote, “It is only the musical element which will permit the film to soar”. He had worked with Georges Auric for years and had perfect faith in him. Anybody listening to the original film will hear that Auric’s score is a far cry from Glass’ version. Nevertheless, after hearing Auric’s music, Cocteau later added, “I had, without realizing it, composed a musical background of my own, and the waves of the orchestra were running counter to it. Gradually… my music made way for his.” It reflects huge confidence in Glass that permission was granted in the first place and it is possible that Cocteau may have found this new score “wedded to the film” in time.
After hearing just two performances of Glass’ opera/film I would find it difficult to disassociate the clotted cream mezzo-soprano of Hai-Ting Chinn’s Belle from the image of Josette Day. Gregory Purnhagen may not have the gruff authority of Jean Marais’ Bête but his easy baritone is appealing and conveys emotional depth. Peter Stewart was able to colour his baritone effectively to differentiate his roles as Belle’s father and brother, and soprano Marie Mascari was vibrant soprano injected plenty of energy into the dual role of Belle’s two ugly-hearted sisters.
In addition to the polished virtuosity of the four specialist singers, the three keyboard players demonstrated the capabilities of the synthesiser in a mesmerising display of shifting colours. The contribution to the soundscape by the three wind players, each on several instruments, ranged from the shrill cry of a piccolo marking the death of the Beast’s prey to the depths of a mellow saxophone. Whatever the combination of instruments, Glass’ minimalist score served to enhance the surreal, dreamlike quality of the film. His remaking of the soundtrack is a transformation in keeping with the surreal transformations of the film, where disembodied arms and heads are part of the furniture, statues come to life, jewelry turns to rope in the hands of the unworthy, the greedy suitor dies transformed into a beast while the beast takes on the improbably glorious form of a handsome prince saved by love.
Cocteau and Glass were drawn to stories that transcend time and place, and have interwoven myths and fables with more contemporary ways of thinking and modes of aesthetic expression. Both the 1946 film and 1994 opera/film versions of La Belle et la Bête are works of the imagination by two exceptional creative artists with the power to transform our way of thinking about art and the world. A beautifully restored film and expert performers ensured a memorable experience.
Editor’s note: The image shown was supplied by the Melbourne Festival. The Philip Glass Ensemble with Michael Riesman were at the Edinburgh Playhouse to perform Philip Glass’s music to accompany Jean Cocteau’s film La Belle et la Bete as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. (Photo by robbie jack/Corbis via Getty Images)