The San Francisco Performances (SFP) “mini-festival,” Philip Glass at 75, began last night in the Lam Research Theater at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with the first of three performances of the second of Glass’ three operas based on films by Jean Cocteau. The film for this work is La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast); and the composition is as much a departure from the conventional sense of opera as was Glass’ pioneering Einstein on the Beach. However, while Einstein was revolutionary in its treatment of narrative (dispensing with it almost entirely), La Belle et la Bête is so beholden to Cocteau’s narrative that the opera amounts to an alternative soundtrack for the film, which may be performed while the film is projected with its own soundtrack silenced.
The result is uncannily effective. While Cocteau had a powerful command of narrative skills, he was drawn to film for its potential to reconceive the very act of visualization. Where his predecessors had seen the cinema as a medium that could hold a magnifying glass to reality, Cocteau was more interested in how that medium could advance the agenda of the surrealist painters; and, in its efforts to rethink the nature of “visual reality,” he invented some of the earliest instances of what we now call “special effects.”
It was therefore not surprising that Cocteau should turn to the “alternative reality” of fairy tales as source material for a film. He saw the fairy tale in terms of the fundamental bond established between the storyteller and the imagination of the listening child. He was probably also influenced by illustrated children’s books, realizing that the illustrations did not so much represent the text as provide further triggers for the child’s imagination. One may thus approach La Belle et la Bête as an effort to realize the imagined world of a child reading this fairy tale in an illustrated storybook.
In this context Glass’ “opera” is a natural extension of Cocteau’s agenda. When a child imagines characters such as Beauty and the relationship she develops with the Beast, why not imagine them as singing, rather than speaking? (The spoken performance on the original soundtrack is relatively flat and almost featureless, possibly to avoid districting from the visual impressions.) Music thus brings a new dimension to not only the tale itself but also Cocteau’s “illustration” (in the storybook sense of the word) of that tale.
To explore that dimension, Glass conceived some of his most lyric writing. Both grammatically and rhetorically, his score is structured around the approach that he calls “music with repetitive structures;” but, while, in so many of his other works, repetition entails connotations of some oppressive “infernal machine” (to borrow a Cocteau turn of phrase), in La Belle et la Bête it provides a soothing lyrical accompaniment to the words of the characters, performed on this occasion by four vocalists, Gregory Purnhagen, Hai-Tin Chinn, Marie Mascari, and Peter Stewart. Each vocal line must, of course, be delivered at the pace at which it had been spoken on the original soundtrack; and for those lines Glass conceived melodic contours that would enhance the clarity of the words themselves with a subtext of musical expressiveness. The music thus provides its own imaginative conception of both the words and the visualization, as would a child listening to the story being told.
La Belle et la Bête is probably the most unique of Glass’ three Cocteau projects. It is probably also one of the most unique compositions in his full portfolio. As a result, it is likely to surprise both those who think they know Glass’ style and those encountering him for the first time. It will be well worth taking advantage of the fact that SFP will present two more performances of this work, today and tomorrow.