Glass La Belle et la Bête
This is one of Philip Glass’s most innovative and impressive works. It isn’t exactly an opera, nor is it film music; cantata is the nearest term, but even that won’t really convey the idea. What Glass has done is to make a setting of the script for Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bete, using every word as it is spoken in the film, but having it sung, the whole thing designed to be performed in concert, with a print of the film being projected silently.
Of all Cocteau’s movies, La Belle et la Bete is visually the most stylized, with its images of the Beast’s castle, and the Vermeeresque settings for the family home of the merchant whose search for a rose to give to his youngest daughter sets off the nightmarish story. For all its surreal photography and extravagant decor by Christian Berard (the apparently living, arms-bearing candelabra, poking out from the wall, have influenced hundreds of interior decorators), the dialogue in the film is delivered in a naturalistic way. Georges Auric’s music is typical of the time, slightly jokey, but there are a surprising number of moments in the film where there is no music or dialogue: it is almost like a silent movie in places.
Glass has changed all this. Now the words are sung in an ethereal, other-worldly way, and the music trembles with typical Glass motifs. Without the visual images to go with it, La Belle et la Bete hovers somewhere between genteel beat music and Messiaen-influenced melodie. I haven’t enjoyed one of Glass’s music-theatre pieces so much since
As Beauty, Janice Felty’s voice matches the image of Josette Day in the film, but Gregory Purnhagen’s light baritone would never suggest Jean Marais, whose smoky tones were such an inspiration to Cocteau. Most people prefer the Beast with his hairy face and claws to the rather effete-looking Prince Charming who emerges at the end, and Glass’s music seems to make an ironic commentary on this transformation. Even for those devoted to the film, this is well worth investigating.
If the idea of Glass’s adaptation doesn’t appeal, the Marco Polo recording of Auric’s film score reveals it in detail. In the film the music fades away in the background. Adriano’s account of it with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra highlights the influence of Ravel (the wordless choruses evoking Daphnis et Chloe) and brings out the fine points of Auric’s exquisite orchestration.
Cocteau described his film as “the illustration of the border that separates one world from the other”; Auric’s music fits that perfectly. Adriano suggests that it would make a good ballet, but to really appreciate it, one needs to hear Cocteau’s words as well. (Extracts from the original soundtrack, conducted by Roger Desormiere, and with the voices of Jean Marais and the other actors, are on a recent CD from Auvidis Travelling (CD) K1506.)'