When I first saw Jean Cocteau’s 1946 cinematic masterpiece La Belle et la Bête on DVD several years ago, its visual storytelling made such a strong impression that a few of its images became unforgettably burned into my memory: disembodied hands grasping candles, statues that blinked, and the Beast himself, a giant kitty-cat who was more pathetic and sad than terrifying. Aurally, several features proved equally indelible, especially the Beast’s high, croaky voice and poetic delivery as he implores Beauty to marry him. Peculiar as it is, Jean Marais’ voice adds considerably to the character, suggesting the high-born, cultivated true self of the Beast; we need not see him arrayed in the opulent costumes he wears throughout the film to know there is a prince beneath that furry feline exterior.

Film still from La Belle et la Bête
Film still from La Belle et la Bête

The Beast’s voice is just one of the many aspects of this beautiful and haunting film that Philip Glass had to reconfigure for his 1994 opera-film of La Belle et la Bête. The work requires the film to be shown with the mute button on, while an instrumental ensemble and opera singers perform Glass’ score live. The challenge of singing text to match the moving lips on screen (which, of course, are speaking the words not singing them) is one that is easily appreciated by anyone who watches poorly synched clips online: the slightest lag or delay between audio and video is incredibly distracting and, most of the time, intolerable. But Glass has never been a composer who shied away from a musical challenge. His avant-garde predilections have, in fact, led him artistically toward the most daunting of compositional tasks. Who else has written operas in Sanskrit and ancient Egyptian?

Before the performance began, I wrongly assumed that the success or failure of Glass’ film-opera would hang entirely on the degree to which the words sung by the live performers would match the lips of the actors on screen. It quickly became evident, however, that such exactitude was not only impossible, but relatively unimportant. Glass chose a film whose visual presentation is so vivid that his contemporary score and total reconceptualizing of the film’s soundworld could be laid upon it without causing any violence to Cocteau’s creation. Even the loss of Marais’ distinct voice is but a minor casualty; it is still Cocteau’s dreamy, almost pantomimic film, and Glass’ unique approach to its minimal script... er... libretto struggles to be an equal partner in the presentation. The duets between Beauty and her Beast were tender and affecting as sung by mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn and baritone Gregory Purnhagen, but the operatic aesthetic merely amplified the already powerfully expressive performances of Marais and Josette Day. Even as a silent film with inter-titles, it is doubtful this film would lose much of its power.

Glassian champion Michael Riesman conducted the Philip Glass Ensemble, which consisted of four singers, three keyboardists, and three wind-instrumentalists who alternated on flutes and saxophones. From the beginning Riesman established a relaxed relationship between score and screen. Rather than coordinate a precise set of cues in response to or in anticipation of specific cinematic moments, Riesman let Glass’ themes and repetitive musical structures unfold with their own logic, generating effective atmosphere rather than campy melodrama. This elastic connection was especially effective in scenes without dialogue – Beauty witnessing the Beast drinking from the pool, the trips through the misty woods, the stunning and surreal scenes within the castle.

It is a crude question, but at the conclusion of the performance I found myself asking: does film-opera work? Glass’ relentless questioning of extant forms of expression has contributed to his reputation as one of opera’s most original artistic voices, but this seems more an experiment and exercise than a viable direction for the artform. La Belle et la Bête is a fascinating score and the Glass players gave it a committed reading for San Francisco Performances, but it seemed a waste to ally such efforts to an iconic film, rather than employ them to recreate the story anew, as Glass did with another of his operas based on a Cocteau film, Orphée. The quartet of singers performed their parts dutifully, especially Purnhagen, baritone Peter Stewart, and soprano Marie Mascari, who all sang multiple characters in the film. Mascari, singing both of Beauty’s loathsome sisters, had a particular knack for the voiceover characterizations.