In a hugely ambitious undertaking, tiny Oakland Opera is producing an
unusual, fascinating, and rewarding version of Philip Glass' "La Belle
et la bete." Performances run through Oct. 2; for information, see
Not your usual opera venue, the company's Oakland Metro home is located
in a small, plain building, next to an "adult superstore" on Broadway,
across the street from the picturesque and funky E&J Barbecue (highly
recommended, with or without opera). To make matters even more bizarre,
this "Beauty and the Beast" opens not in the theater, but in a makeshift
tent on the street, squeezing the hundred-plus audience against the
performers and the nine-piece orchestra.
It didn't make much sense to do this and then march the audience into
the hall when the action shifts to the Beast's palace (15 chaotic minutes
without the generously large supertitles available inside, translating
the French text), but something musically miraculous happened as the
result. Standing inches away from the singers and musicians, the listener
- with a lifetime of experiencing Glass' music - heard the score as
never before. Without Glass' own ever-present (and usually excessive)
amplification, under Deirdre McClure's superb direction and with an
intimate, excellent ensemble performance, the music emerged to its best
advantage, relegating the usual stubborn ostinato and metallic din into
the background, bringing melody and harmonic beauty to the fore.
Artistic director Tom Dean's staging is a bold departure from the "Belle"
routine. Movies from novels, musicals from plays, songs from poems,
etc. - multiple iterations, variations on a theme are common in the
arts, especially in the case of "Beauty and the Beast," a story chronicled
on the ice, with puppets, on lunch boxes, etc., in any imaginable form.
But Oakland Opera doing something different in "transforming material,"
against this background:
In 1756, a French governess working in Scotland wrote the original
story of "Belle." In 1946, Jean Cocteau directed a masterpiece of a film
depicting the story. In the 1990s, Glass, wrote new soundtrack for three
of Cocteau's films: "Orpheus," "Les Enfants Terribles," and "La Belle."
Now, "soundtrack" is technically correct, but there is more to it than
that: the music is always performed live, with singers, as the films are
screened, so that these works are really known as operas. (Not long
ago, Glass' ensemble performed the works in Zellerbach Hall.)
The Oakland Opera production is without Cocteau's film, the source for,
the inspiration of Glass' work. Using live visual elements of both the
film and of the contemporary Disnified versions (film and musical), Dean
created a "circus environment," complete with ever-present dancer-acrobats
in white, on a large, multi-level stage that appears physically impossible
to fit into the theater... except that it does, impressively.
Withal, the music dominates. There is a wondrous pair of principals:
the internationally-known soprano Marguerite Krull as Belle, with a
powerful, soaring voice, and strong, affecting stage presence; and (follow
this carefully) Grammy-winner, Chanticleer veteran, Ringling Bros.
ringmaster bass-baritone David Alan Marshall, singing an elegant,
tenor-range Beast magnificently.
With all cast members fitting well into the production, special mention
must be made of the musicians, especially of Shain Carrasco (cello),
Robin Hansen and Lylia Guion (violins) and, first among equals, assistant
music director Skye Atman on keyboard (with Regina Schaffer), outdoing
Glass himself in expression, if not in mechanical virtuosity - and what's
Attending tonight's preview was a first experience of Oakland Opera,
discounting the long-ago memories of a company by the same name, headed
by William Lewis himself. The current company, with a history going
back nearly two decades, calls the "Underworld Opera Company" as its
forerunner, so chances are it's different from the old Oakland Opera.
Whatever its history, this company next to the adult superstore is
surprising and terrific.
[log in to unmask]