Jere, Dale, Mike and I saw *La Belle et la Bête* at The Town Hall on 4/20/17. It was being screened/performed as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.
The piece has a very interesting history. Jean Cocteau wrote and directed the film *La Belle et la Bête* (aka Beauty and the Beast) in 1946, starring his partner Jean Marais as the Beast and Josette Day as Belle. Philip Glass took the film and made it into an opera in 1994. I had seen the Cocteau original in the late 80s, I'm pretty sure I saw it on VHS with the infamous Marc Heeg (a number of my readers will groan at the mention of his name). It's a beautiful movie, very French, very fairy tale, with a score by Georges Auric, one of Les Six (a group of mid-century French composers), best known to American audiences for writing the scores to *Roman Holiday* and *Moulin Rouge* (the one with Zsa Zsa Gabor, not the one with Nicole Kidman). Philip Glass took the film and removed all of the sound and wrote an opera to the dialogue, so the singers do a sort of reverse lip-synch, singing to match the lip movements of the actors on the screen.
The screening/performance of the film/opera was preceded by a conversation between Glass and director Errol Morris. Morris and Glass collaborated on *The Thin Blue Line* and *The Fog of War.* If you haven't seen *The Thin Blue Line,* run - - don't walk. Brilliant movie, one of the most fascinating documentaries I've ever seen. The way that Morris mixes reenactments with interviews, and Glass's hypnotic score, it's a great movie.
Glass said that The Town Hall has a special place in his heart because it was the first concert hall in New York where his music was performed. He'd had performances in art galleries or someone's loft downtown, but this was the first real concert hall in New York. But honestly, it wasn't a case of The Town Hall presenting a concert, he had to rent it! He said he was happy that it was sold out, but still...
Glass had written a few film scores before he did *La Belle et la Bête* and he was getting more familiar with the way music interacts with film. He'd also written quite a few operas, including an opera of *Orphée,* based on the Cocteau film. In that case he set the screenplay of the film and made a free-standing opera out of it. He was interested in *La Belle et la Bête* and came up with the unusual idea of writing an opera to be performed with the film.
Morris said he was shocked to see how well it works out, how perfectly the singing matches up with the film. Glass said that it appears to work well because you THINK it does. And honestly , it works much better on DVD, where they could do endless retakes to make sure it's perfect. It was a little more loose in performance. This isn't a criticism, it's just an observation.
Glass told an interesting story about living in Paris when he was a young man - - it was humble of him to leave out the fact that he was there studying with perhaps the most influential composition teacher of the 20th century, Nadia Boulanger (I've included a partial list of her students below). He made money working in the film industry. First he was an extra, then he got a better-paying (and more interesting) job in the dubbing office. He wrote the English scripts, he chose the words that would work best to go with the lip movements of the actors on the screen. He said drew on this this experience years later when he wrote *La Belle et la Bête.*
Morris and Glass clearly enjoy each other and have an easy camaraderie, but perhaps Morris wasn't the best person to draw Glass out in a conversation in this setting. A lot of their conversation consisted of the two of them sitting and looking at each other. Which was cute, but sort of a waste of my time.
The opera/score was performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble, conducted by his longtime conductor, Michael Riesman. I was thrilled that the singer who first sang the Beast was performing it again, Greg Purnhagen. He's a friend of a friend and a marvelous singer. He has the best part, and sang it with tenderness, beautiful tone, and not just wonderful French diction, but a delicious sense of the whole French style. Hai-Ting Chinn sang Belle, and sang beautifully.
The music, frankly, was rather monotonous. And I love Glass. But this piece is a little flat, maybe it works better with an orchestra, but the instrumentation was a little dull and unvaried with the Philip Glass Ensemble.
The movie is magical. A few moments got hearty guffaws from the audience, the effects are a little goofy from our 21st century perspective. The overall style is High Kitsch, as could only be made by a gay French man in 1946.
Students of Nadia Boulanger (a partial list, in alphabetical order - - thank you, wikipedia)
John Eliot Gardiner
Gian Carlo Menotti