The Philip Glass Ensemble graced the stage at this year’s Melbourne Festival with a twenty-year-old opera transposed over Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bete in a production which, rather than dazzle, raised questions about the relevance and reasons for adaptation.
La Belle et la Bete is a classic of cinema, with Cocteau’s gorgeous illusions, motifs and imagery still enchanting even in an age of 3D animation and HD streaming. There is a theatricality and innocence to the film that offers itself up to musical reinterpretation. While Glass’ music is lovely and, of course, the musicians (Lisa Bielawa, Dan Bora, Jon Gibson, Peter Hess, Ryan Kelly, Nelson Padgett, Michael Riesman, Eleonor Sandresky, Andrew Sterman) are excellent, there is a distinct lack of synchronicity between the old and the new in his reimagining.
The glaring question is this: why on earth did he decide to turn this into an opera?
The film is beautifully theatrical, with illusion and sumptuous sets and costumes, and plot twists to keep even the biggest soap opera devotee happy. But Glass’ score doesn’t use any of this content to inform the score. Instead, the music sits somewhere in between opera and conversation, with a disrespect of the rhythm and beauty of language (translated from French to English) that makes an already problematic script almost unbearable.
The singers (Hai-Ting Chinn, Marie Mascari, Gregory Purnhagen, Peter Stewart) all had lovely voices, though they lacked emotional connection with one another and the text. This was perhaps a symptom of the laughable plot and characters which had the modern audience chuckling throughout the film at the absurdity of 1946 gender depictions and plot devices.
The lack of connection of music to character and story is the reason this work falls flat. Had Glass paid more attention to matching form and content in his composition, it could have been brilliant. Alternatively, had he been audacious enough to strip the text entirely and underscore the whole film without lyrics, leaving the audience to fill in the story from each person’s personal, social and political context, it could have been a phenomenal and provocative piece of work.
It raises questions about reinterpretation. Firstly: why do we want to reimagine a work of art in the first place? To reinstate it as a classic? Then one must honour the creative heart of the original material, rather than rip it out and leave it bleeding on the stage. Do we reinterpret art to highlight the shifts between then and now, or to prompt debate and introspection about current society? Then one must at least attempt to interrogate the social, political and cultural climate of both the original and current contexts. Glass’ La Belle et la Bete does none of this; while it is a perfectly fine night in the theatre, the lack of purpose (or, to be honest, artistic merit) in this production leads to another question: why did Melbourne Festival program it?
One glance at any Melbourne Festival audience will tell you that it is predominantly made up of upper-middle-class white arts patrons, who will do things like buy $139 tickets to La Belle et la Bete simply because Philip Glass made it. There is nothing wrong with this being the motivating factor in buying tickets. But when programmers know that a group of highly influential, powerful theatregoers, with a hell of a lot privilege and influence, will fill the Melbourne Recital Centre for a Philip Glass show, is there a responsibility to program work that at least brushes against an attempt at socio-political commentary? Perhaps, and perhaps not. But it pays to be critical of these things when we look at the ecology of a festival such as this.
Glass’ La Belle et la Bete is enjoyable and a skilled piece of music. While it seemingly has no understanding of how form enables content, it is safe and pretty and will keep the WASPs happy. I think, however, that we should be demanding more from our programming than this.