Largely forgotten nowadays, Grétry was popular in his time, composed more than fifty operas, and was hired by Queen Marie Antoinette as her court music director. The opera was a favorite of Mozart’s, and the music stands the test of time very well.
The story follows the classic version of the tale of Beauty and the Beast, with a few tweaks. The merchant Sander (Eric McKeever) is shipwrecked, along with his servant, Ali (Nicholas Nestorak). They seek shelter in what appears at first to be an abandoned palace, Ali with great reluctance as he fears the place is haunted. The palace’s invisible servants (Alex Campea, Bria Cloyd, Sean Anthony Jackson, and Alex Mace) lay out a feast for them. Ali’s fears are dispelled by the excellent wine, but Sander becomes the fearful one when the playful spirits start levitating the drunken Ali around the room.
Comes the dawn, Sander literally drags the hung-over Ali out the door, but stops to pluck a rose for his daughter, Zemire. which prompts the appearance of the outraged Beast, Azor. In this production, the Beast is represented by an eight-foot tall and equally broad puppet figure manipulated by the spirits, and given voice by tenor Chaz’men Williams Ali. The fearsome Beast walks like a gorilla, has a spiky carapace like a crab, the horns and ears of a water buffalo, fangs, and tusks. Accusing Sander of theft and ingratitude, the Beast eventually agrees to give Sander his life, his freedom, and wealth, if he will send Azor his daughter, Zemire. Azor swears that she will come to no harm, but Sander and Ali aren’t sure when Azor summons up a wind spirit (another puppet, reminiscent of a small version of the “Snow Dragon” seen at the Skylight in 2015) that bears them home.
At home, they are greeted by Sander’s daughters, spoiled materialists Fatme and Lisbe (Erin Sura and Sarah Thompson Johansen), and the good and virtuous Zemire (Gillian Hollis). Fatme and Lisbe are dismayed that their father has lost everything, but Zemire is just glad to have him back. Then, he produces the rose, and tells them of the dreadful bargain he has made. While the others all think about ways to get out of it, Zemire compels Ali to take her to the Beast’s palace, so that the Beast will keep his promise and her family be provided for. She bravely enters the palace, but, on seeing the Beast for the first time, faints dead away.
When she revives, Azor is kind to her, and tells her that she may command him and the spirits for any thing she wishes. She replies that she is not made happy by things. Instead, she sings a song for him, and dances with the spirits.
After a time, she wishes to know how her family is faring. Despite misgivings, Azor brings out a magic mirror, which will not only show her whom she wishes to see, but allow her to hear their thoughts as well. Her now richly adorned sisters are more spoiled than ever, but her father, aged by his ordeal, is deeply sunk in grief over the loss of Zemire. Zemire declares that she must go to him. Azor protests that this is an excuse to leave him. Giving her a magic ring that will allow her instant travel, Azor gets her to promise to return by sunset, because he has realized that he loves her, and it was foretold him by the spirit that enchanted him, that on the day he was able to love, his “cursed life would end.”
Zemire transports herself to the family home, to her father’s joy, but he and her sisters attempt to keep her there. With Ali’s help she escapes back to the Beast’s palace, arriving just as night has fallen. She calls out to Azor, and he is able to answer, because his “cursed life” has ended by his being transformed back into his normal, kingly, form. Sander, Ali, Fatme and Lisbe arrive, intent on rescuing Zemire once and for all, in time to take part in the happy ending.
This production was just charming all the way through: the story, the setting, the costumes, the music, the singing, the dancing were all lovely. The English translation of the libretto, by Colin Graham, further adapted by Director James Ortiz and Shari Rhoads, was witty and enjoyable. Of course, the monster in the room is the huge Azor puppet, which was very effective. The “spirits” manipulating it did a wonderful and graceful job of bringing it to life, and most of the time the “ventriloquism” effect worked well, making it easy to accept that the puppet was singing. It didn’t work when Mr. Williams Ali, who sings the Beast’s role as a hooded figure on stage, gets too far down front and in the action, but this only happened a couple of times. One episode in which the puppet manipulation was distracting came in the first scene, during Sander’s song lamenting his dilemma, during which the Beast kept nervously moving its head, which distracted from Sander’s singing. Even puppets should obey the basic rule of stagecraft to not pull eyes away from the focus of the scene.
This was a really excellent, creative, and entertaining production, and we were very glad to have seen it.