Philip Glass Mixes Music With Cocteau's Images
`La Belle et la Bete,'' the latest opera by Philip Glass, illustrates an idea that has preoccupied the composer throughout his career: that boundaries and borderlines have no useful place in the arts, whether to divide the realms of ``high'' and ``low'' culture or to separate the many disciplines that make up the artistic world.
Glass has lived up to this credo, performing his music in a wide variety of venues - from Carnegie Hall to a Manhattan discotheque among other places - and often combining his compositions with the work of artists from other fields. In addition to pure concert music, he has written pieces for stage, film, dance, and multimedia works, putting his distinctive mark on an extraordinarily wide range of artistic turf.
``La Belle et la Bete'' is the second installment in a trilogy of Glass operas based on movies by Jean Cocteau, the great French filmmaker. This project shows Glass's respect for cinema as a medium that blurs the line between ``great art'' and ``mass entertainment.''
It also gives him a chance to experiment with new kinds of mixed-media expression. The trilogy's first portion, ``Orphee,'' is a conventionally staged opera based on images from Cocteau's film of the same title. The last portion, ``Les Enfants Terribles,'' will combine music and dance when it's completed next year.
Perhaps the most radical of the series, ``La Belle et la Bete'' uses Cocteau's original film as one of its main components, projected without sound at the rear of the stage. The singers stand to either side, singing the movie's dialogue in rough synchronization with the on-screen performers.
Members of the Philip Glass Ensemble sit in front, faced by conductor Michael Riesman, who coordinates the live music with the cinematic images.
This is a bold and probably unprecedented set up, but it makes good theoretical sense, given that film and opera are both overtly synthetic art forms. If all goes as planned during a performance, the effect is of witnessing a new expressive form that merges classical black-and-white cinema with space-age music and high-tech audio gear.
All did go as planned on opening night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music recently, where ``La Belle et la Bete'' had its American premiere as part of the Next Wave Festival. Coordination between the vocal, instrumental, and cinematic elements was accurate without seeming restrictive - thanks to Riesman's excellent conducting - and all the singers were solidly in tune with the movie's atmosphere, which drapes the timeless tale of Beauty and the Beast with Cocteauesque shadings of the symbolic and the surreal.
This said, it must be added that the evening was rarely as exciting as Glass's best offerings. Blame for this lies partly with the music, which draws on Glass mannerisms - insistent riffs, inexorable progressions, powerhouse chords, reedy chromatic scales - without giving them the continually renewed meaning and energy found in such works as ``Einstein on the Beach'' and ``Satyagraha,'' still his best operas.
On the visual level, moreover, Cocteau's film is poorly served by the stage arrangement, which bathes the screen with excess light intended for the musicians. This movie is an important work by one of European cinema's most respected artists, and it deserves more respectful presentation than it receives in Glass's opera as currently designed.
Back on the plus side, praise goes to all four singers: Alexandra Montano as the heroine, Gregory Purnhagen as the hero, Zheng Zhou as La Belle's father - he sang other characters, too, as did Purnhagen - and Hallie Neill as her sisters.
Glass's ensemble played with its usual might, and the composer himself was at one of the keyboards.
* A recording of ``La Belle et la Bete'' will be released by Elektra Nonesuch next year. Also due from the label in 1995 are a disc of Glass string quartets played by the Kronos Quartet and a complete rendition of his classic work ``Music in Twelve Parts.''