By DIEGO CAGARA
SARATOGA SPRINGS — While “Beauty and the Beast” dazzled audiences worldwide earlier this year with a live-action remake of the 1991 Disney animated film, a French version that is based on the 1740 tale debuted at Opera Saratoga on July 2 in the form of a bilingual opera instead of the joyful cinematic musical one would initially assume.
“Zémire et Azor” was originally performed on Nov. 9, 1771 at the French capital and its opening night in Saratoga was a major success, as exuberant vocals, intricate choreography, an impressive set design and a respectable orchestra collided with a nearly-packed theater. The opera’s dialogue is in English and the songs are sung in French, with English supertitles projected over a small screen above the slender stage.
Consisting of six primary characters, Zémire, the romantic-inclined lead, was portrayed by Maureen McKay whose rising vocals and gleeful disposition made up for her relatively short stature. Katherine Maysek and Lisa Marie Rogali play her two sisters, Fatmé and Lisbé, whose vanity is easily redeemable as the audience learns they do care for their family’s well-being but go about it the wrong way. The two act like a humorous duo as they’re almost always seen providing sight gags together, like Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Sander, their father, was depicted by baritone Christopher Burchett who impressively can belt his low voice for long notes, exuding classical masculinity. Burchett successfully portrays him as a merchant who dearly loves and fiercely protects his daughters.
Azor, the cursed prince-turned-beast, was portrayed by Andrew Bidlack initially as a tortured soul in a thick brown hooded outfit, constantly looking over the other characters from the set’s high steps like a damned gargoyle.
Four puppeteers acted as Azor’s beastly form, a monstrous, thorny and quadrupedal creature with horns protruding from its head, a mouth like a spider and enormous limbs that take up much of the narrow stage. The cohesiveness of the five actors was surprisingly impressive because whenever Bidlack’s Azor was speaking or singing, the puppeteers ensured to make his beastly form as kinetic and emotive as possible, its face vibrating whenever Bidlack belted out notes and mouth opening and closing whenever Bidlack spoke his lines. His beastly form’s immense size was especially emphasized whenever it towered over the other characters, like when Sander begged for mercy or when Zémire fainted upon meeting it for the first time. For these reasons alone, James Ortiz, the opera’s director and designer deserves applause.
The most distinguished character was Ali, Sander’s servant, who was portrayed by Keith Jameson whose constant anxiety, powerful voice and sometimes squeaky vocals whenever appropriate, and comedic timing altogether made him a tremendous source of comic relief. The opera’s dialogue further highlighted his hilarious nature like when he stood center stage amid facing all the drama and randomly yelling out, “I need a vacation!”
Azor’s puppeteers and the orchestra are ironically the unsung heroes of this opening night as the puppeteers’ actual faces are never truly seen since they are busy operating Azor’s beastly form while the orchestra is mostly hidden away behind the set. The orchestra notably worked well with Ali’s character as the violins’ high staccato notes coincided with Ali’s hesitation and shrill notes as he tries to flee from a determined Zémire who wants him to take her to Azor.
Themes of love, security and sacrifice permeate this two-act opera. Sander’s ship sinks, leading him and Ali to seek refuge at a mysterious palace and eventually meet Azor, to their horror. They anger him when Sander takes a rose, intending to give it to Zémire. In exchange for letting them live, Azor demands that Sander have Zémire take his place at his palace. Upon arrival, an initially terrified Zémire soon falls for Azor but learns he is a victim of a curse and that he longs for love despite his “hideous” outward appearance. For those more familiar with the Disney version and not exactly into opera, this performance still nonetheless succeeded on its own, clear evidence that the original fairytale, “La Belle et La Bête” (1740) by French author Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve remains such a rich source of material centuries later.
Production-wise, the stage was particularly small but the rotating sets at the center which allowed for scene changes constantly made the opera refreshing. Azor’s beastly form also invaded much of the stage but thanks to careful choreography, it never really experienced any awkward space hogging or falls despite its humungous size and need to be operated by four puppeteers, all thanks to careful choreography by Jill Echo.
The use of color was also commendable as the scene where Zémire, her back facing the audience, first enters Azor’s palace was especially memorable because her dark silhouette under the cold blue spotlight added dramatic effect. The sets and outfits largely were chromatically gloomy with dark shades of forest green and brown, but Zémire’s rose breaks that trend, appearing as bright orange and effervescent under the spotlight and center stage amid all the drama.
The opening night suffered only a few minor hiccups. McKay managed to continue on despite a brief voice crack while simultaneously singing and calling for Azor who had presumably perished at the hands of his curse, dying at sunset. Her final dress looked more discount-like than regal, cheapened by its eye-rolling-inducing bright pink and glittery look, a vast difference from the opera’s poster’s simple yellow dress. The English supertitles often did not appear while the actors sung in French, causing some confusion as to whether it was deliberate or not, forcing the general audience member to just listen on in the dark.
But Zémire and Azor’s old-fashioned romance, Ali’s unforgettable humor and the remarkable production made up for them.
Upon deep reflection, Sander realized near the opera’s conclusion that “all it took was a single rose.”
And a ticket if one wants to watch this opera as it will be performed again Friday, 14.