MUSIC / Beauty and the piece

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The Independent Culture
Composers have pretty rum ideas for making opera, few stranger than Philip Glass's 'opera for ensemble and film' La Belle et la Bete. Glass's idea is simple, even fatuous: take Jean Cocteau's 1945 film, eliminate the soundtrack and substitute Glass's own, performed live by four voices and instrumental ensemble (four keyboards, one played by Glass, and three saxophones, one doubling on flute). Project the film and, as the actors open their mouths, their words emerge from the on-stage singers. Altogether a pretty pointless exercise.

The trouble is, it worked. Its UK premiere last Friday in the Royal Festival Hall captivated the audience, and it's a moot point whether the enthusiasm was for Glass - applauded as if he were the project's onlie begetter - or for Cocteau's film. On the night it was a unified experience, new as we watched (I can't have been the only person in the audience who had not previously seen the film). Cocteau's gossamer fantasy might seem too delicate to support Glass's clunks and drones, and the hugely amplified keyboards provided music more suited to the rococo excesses of Roger Corman's cinematic adaptations of Poe: here a shimmer of quasi-harpsichord, there some clock chimes to match - you guessed - the chiming of a clock. In striving to match Cocteau's morbid lyricism, Glass often descended into bathos, his only means to follow Cocteau into fairyland being to pump up the volume or to play faster.

And yet it was bewitching to hear live singers give voice to flickering screen images. Glass's vocal writing, lighter than that for instruments, provided a kind of aggravated recitative. Unwillingly I found myself thinking of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, an almost sacrilegious association.

Glass's La Belle et la Bete is an operatic cul-de-sac. It is cripplingly reliant on Cocteau's vision. Yet the mind, made receptive by the darkened room, could no longer disentangle the separate elements.

The previous evening, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Gavin Bryars Ensemble offered half a dozen Bryars works, including Doctor Ox's Experiment (Epilogue), the final scene from a new opera due to be staged by ENO in 1996. It is based on a Jules Verne story, set in the town of Quiquendone where, in Bryars' words, 'everything happens slowly'. No one writes music better suited to things that happen slowly. Bryars' instrumental lines seem always to be biding their time until a tune comes along. Events rumble beneath the surface, never quite taking place.

I have been driven to distraction by the lack of event in a Bryars concert, but last Thursday each piece made its impact (if that's not too forceful a word). In Sub Rosa an eerie timbre emerged from the unexpected fusion of violin, electric guitar, clarinet and bowed vibraphone. In the opera extract, the bass clarinet rumbled menacingly as it does in the council chamber scene of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra - an echo Bryars might reject. Sarah Leonard sang the dense text with her usual extra-terrestrial purity. It remains to be seen whether the textual opacity matters in stage performance.