Skylight turns to puppetmaster James Ortiz to realize this 18th-century opera.
Midway through the second act of the Skylight Music Theatre’s Beauty & the Beast, the lovely but captive Zémire offers to sing a song to her beastly host, Azor. “La Fauvette” is the best known song from André Grétry’s 1771 opéra comique, originally called Zémire et Azor. Gillian Hollis sings it with assured elegance, a sweet coloratura that negotiates the aria’s challenges without sacrificing its charm and sweet feeling. It’s the musical highlight of the evening.
The theatrical highlight—not surprisingly–is James Ortiz’s magnificent puppet construction. His “beast,” seems drawn in equal parts from Jurassic Park and Greek mythology (the minotaur face is wonderfully expressive). It’s moved and manipulated by four ensemble members, while it is voiced by a cloaked figure (Chaz’men Williams-Ali), standing off on another part of the stage.
The story is familiar, yet not-so-familiar. Grétry based his opera on a 1756 short story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, which was in turn based on a more elaborate tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve. Contra Disney, There isn’t any dancing cutlery or a climatic waltz around a big ballroom. But this B and the B is a touching fable about the power of kindness and love. A merchant, Sander, dotes on his three daughters, but one of them is surrendered to Azor when the merchant and his page, Ali, find themselves trapped in the beast’s lonely and magical home. She’s initially terrified, but is eventually touched by Azor’s kindness and gallantry, and his experience of love lifts the curse that transformed him into a beast.
Ortiz’s telling of the story has some imaginative touches. Sander’s travels fly by in a dumbshow that uses a floating ship silhouette to suggest his journeys. His stage design suggests the Romantic ruins of Piranesi’s drawings, and the double turntable allows for quick scene changes and dramatic reveals.
Music Director Shari Rhoads’s 13-piece orchestra plays Grétry’s modified score with tuneful elegance. The singers are excellent. Williams-Ali uses his soaring tenor in some standout arias. Eric McKeever and Nicholas Nestorak (as Sander and Ali) share some campy opera buffa moments as they skulk around the beast’s mysterious castle. Sarah Thompson Johansen and Erin Sura have some fine musical moments as Zémire’s spoiled sisters.
It’s no coincidence that Hollis’s “La Fauvette” is the only part of Zémire et Azor (the original title of Grétry’s opera) sung or spoken in the original French. While Skylight’s roster of singers is impressive, the English translations (by the late British opera director Colin Graham) sit uneasily on Grétry’s melodies. The cast makes the best of it, but its hard to ignore some of the awkward, unmusical language.
The cast also seems a bit rudderless when they are not showing off their vocal talents. Like the operas of its day, Zémire et Azor is more like a modern musical than a traditional “grand” opera. More than half of the exchanges are spoken rather than sung. So the roles demand acting chops as well as solid singing voices. As both director and designer, Ortiz seems to focus mostly on the latter. The spoken scenes are slow and cumbersome, with little comic sparkle or dramatic heft. They move the story along, but it’s easy to get impatient for the orchestra to kick in and offer more of Grétry’s charming music. With moments like Hollis’s charming “La Fauvette,” as the standard, it’s easy to wish for a touch more effervescence in this bubbliest of operas.