The saga of “Beauty and the Beast” has been enshrined in the public imagination since not long after Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont published her 18th-century take on the fairytale. Every so often it receives shiny pop culture updates from novels, TV shows and films, most notably from Disney, which did the story justice with its 1991 animated film, later remounted as a Broadway musical, and this year’s live-action version. Many of its onscreen ideas, however, originated with French playwright and filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film “La Belle et la Bête,” a black-and-white fantasia that still enthralls.
George Auric’s original score for “La Belle et la Bête” enhanced its supernatural aura, alternating between eerie choral sounds and the kind of brightly suggestive orchestrations typical of midcentury cinema. Onscreen, ghostly white arms emerge from long black walls holding candelabra, eyes rotate in frozen stone figures around a roaring fireplace, and an enchanted mirror invites Beauty to “reflect in your heart for me, and I will reflect for you,” thus allowing her to see her ailing father across the miles as well as the Beast pining elsewhere in the castle. All these are accepted as standard features of the tale now, but they were seen as innovative in Cocteau’s film. Made not long after World War II, when daily life in Europe was still one of deprivation and improvisation, his film is a masterwork of creativity and highly stylized performances, particularly by actress Josette Day, which evoke ballet’s ethereality.
Actor Jean Marais portrayed the Beast, Prince Ardent, and Avenant, Belle’s would-be suitor who is less toxic than Disney’s villainous Gaston but still no match for the romantic Beast. As the Beast, Marais assumed deep, coarse speaking tones that underscore a core theme voiced at the film’s end: “Love can turn a man into a beast. But love can also make an ugly man handsome.”
In 1994 Philip Glass composed an operatic soundtrack for Cocteau’s film that is unsurprisingly minimalist, as operas go. He retained some of the spookiness of Auric’s score with briefly repeated instrumental themes and heightened the emotional exchanges between Beauty and the Beast with flowing melodies. It is Glass’ “classical opera” that LA Opera will present Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown LA this weekend. Four live singers will synchronize with actors in the film and be accompanied by the Philip Glass Ensemble, conducted by Michael Riesman. Whether Belle will sound as angelic or the Beast as gruff as their filmic counterparts remains to be seen, but it promises to be an otherworldly celebration of Halloween.
Performances take places 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28 (ticket includes Annual Halloween Beastly Ball), 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29, and 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 31 (ticket includes Halloween afterparty — must be over 21 — and LA Opera costume contest), at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, 933 S. Broadway, Downtown LA; $41-$129. Info: (213) 623-3233. Acehotel.com, laopera.org, philipglass.com