LOCAL OPERA TO BEGIN THE SEASON: BEAUTY’S BEAST OFFERS ANOTHER TAKE ON THE CLASSIC FANTASY
Allison Cociani (music) and Anna Shill (libretto), BEAUTY’S BEAST: Anna Shill (Belle), Jason Cook (Beast), Allison Cociani (Enchantress), Julie McIsaac (director), Perri Lo (pianist), Annex, September 7, 2019.
Opera is hardly thick on the ground in Vancouver, and what better way to send off the new season than with a contribution from a smaller presenter. Beauty’s Beast is the second original score produced by East Van Opera, a local chamber opera company devoted to the creation of new music. Their inaugural venture, Alma: The Story of the Girl Who Glowed (libretto and music by Allison Cociani), was performed at the Metro Theatre in June 2017. Whereas Alma was an elaborate “opera-ballet-burlesque” for five singers, six dancers, and a chamber orchestra of twelve players, Beauty’s Beast is a more modest, stripped-down affair, featuring only three singers and solo piano accompaniment, with very few stage adornments. Nonetheless, with well-chosen texts, moments of fine singing and acting, attractive period costumes and resourceful use of projections, the opera experience was definitely a pleasant one, even if it did not reveal the story in a particularly new light.
The goal of Allison Cociani and Anna Shill’s adaptation of the Beauty and the Beast story was to explore themes of ‘consent . . . female empowerment, and critical self-discovery.’ To facilitate this goal, the creators pared away all the other characters and subplots of the story, focusing only on the developing relationship between the two central figures. The prefatory material - such as the old woman’s curse on the Prince (who becomes the Beast), and the episode concerning Belle’s father and his indiscretion in stealing the rose - is relegated to a prologue sung by a mysterious woman called Enchantress, who keeps a respectful distance from the proceedings. The action begins with Belle’s determination to save her father by journeying to the Beast’s remote castle and continues with her inauspicious first meeting with him, the gradual thawing in their relations and dawning of mutual understanding, and ends with the expected affirmation of love and affection. One departure from the traditional story is the absence of the Beast’s transformation back into the handsome Prince, which highlights Belle’s acceptance of him as total and unconditional – horns, facial hair, and all. The libretto itself adheres fairly closely to the familiar versions of the Beauty and the Beast narrative, both literary and cinematic.
Cociani’s music is tonal and accessible, with judicious use of dissonance and a restrained piano part that supports but never overwhelms the voices. The texture might be described as a kind of parlante in which an independently melodic instrumental part serves as a backdrop for the declamatory dialogue in the voices. The character of the vocal lines hovers somewhere in between recitative and arioso, though hints of aria style do emerge at emotionally charged moments, such as Belle’s aria, ‘Be Kind.’ As befits a score by a singer/composer, the music is gratefully written for the human voice: indeed, the meticulous attention to text setting and careful consideration for the ranges and capabilities of the individual vocal parts are a definite virtue of this opera. The form of the music is essentially continuous and through-composed, with few attempts to develop significant motives, or signature melodies or harmonies. The absence of reminiscence themes or leitmotivs in the piano part gives the impression of a written-out improvisation, or perhaps an accompaniment to a silent film. At times, though, this ‘stream-of-consciousness’ approach to musical development seemed dangerously close to formlessness.
The outstanding performance of this production was the Beast of Jason Cook, whose magnetic stage presence, finely nuanced acting, and rich, powerful baritone voice proved consistently enjoyable. It is remarkable that, despite the heavy ‘beast’ makeup that obscured many of his features, Cook was able to use his face and eyes so expressively. His vocal range was every bit as impressive as his acting variety, from his effortlessly ringing high notes to his darkly resonant low register, matched by a command of dynamic shadings from a whispered pianissimo to a stentorian fortissimo. In the role of Belle, librettist Anna Shill charmed the audience with her bright, clear timbre and delicately floating high notes, showing extraordinary agility across her entire tessitura. Her chemistry with Cook was genuinely engaging and lent the production an emotional heft and intensity it may have otherwise lacked. The minor role of Enchantress was well served by composer Allsion Cociani, thanks to her impeccable enunciation, excellent projection, and velvety tone, though her slightly unsteady vibrato may not have been to all tastes. Pianist Perri Lo provided dependable and unobtrusive support throughout.
In spite of limited means – there were hardly any sets or props, aside from two chairs – the production managed to be evocative and appealing. Projections were used to create a sense of space and location, whether in the interior of the Beast’s castle or in the snow-covered forest outside. The beautiful 18th-century costumes contributed to the temporally remote fairy-tale setting of the story. Finally, Julie McIsaac’s stage direction had the virtue of being swift-moving, direct, and unfussy, eschewing unnecessary action and exaggerated gestures while focusing the audiences’ attention on the evolving relationship between the two protagonists.
In addition to its fine moments of singing and staging, the basic strengths of Beauty’s Beast were its sincerity of intent and the strong sense of commitment demonstrated by its performers. But how much does the concept of the opera break new ground? Cociani and Shill do indeed present Belle as a courageous, determined, and strong-willed woman, but it would be difficult to think this differs much from the character’s depiction in earlier media. The opera also places greater emphasis on the Beast’s awakening to compassion and selflessness than other versions but, again, it seems that the difference is more one of degree than of kind. Thus, there is not really a new interpretation of the story here; more one which gives particular emphasis to elements of consent and female empowerment that already exist within it. From a musical standpoint, the composer might have gone further to achieve cogency and integration in the musical fabric. Nonetheless, given the sheer number of things which were executed well in this production, this was unquestionably a strong effort by a fledgling local opera ensemble. Beauty’s Beast can be potentially performed for variety of audiences and, overall, constitutes a pleasant addition to the repertoire of light contemporary chamber operas.
© Nicolas Krusek 2019