The Beast steals the show in world premiere of Beauty's BeastReview
With the rise of independent opera companies, both in Vancouver and around the world, it’s wonderful to see new compositions by modern composers on season line-ups everywhere. As with Allison Cociani’s newest work, Beauty’s Beast, it explores classic stories through a modern lens, using unconventional tonalities, harmonic tension, and a lush, challenging score.
Opening the show is Cociani herself as the Enchantress. In a similar vein to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, we begin with a prologue: there is a cruel Prince who turns away an old woman seeking shelter for the night; the old woman curses the Prince to become a beast. In this version, the Beast only has a year to earn the love of a woman, or his heart will stop. It’s an interesting twist on the tale, that adds a sense of immediacy to the love story.
Cociani as the Enchantress is the narrator. Her voice is light and clear, and she tells the story with great emotion and a touch of foreboding. Other than the prologue, she only appears occasionally to underscore the forward momentum of the plot. The prologue was underscored with shadow-puppet-like projections that show the progression of the characters as the Enchantress narrates.
Anna Shill as Belle is the quintessential ingenue. With a bright, sweet soprano, she portrays Belle as the innocent girl who gradually sees the good inside the Beast. She finds she truly loves him, but hopefully not too late to save him.
Jason Cook as the titular Beast positively steals the show. His portrayal has an immediacy and desperation from the moment he sees Belle. Desperate to win her love, he pushes her, angry at her reluctance and redoubling his efforts with gifts, pleading, and more anger. It’s only when he’s told that he will never win her love with expectation of reciprocity that he actually attempts to win her for who she is, with awkward, charming flirtations that were delightful to watch.
Vocally, Cook is a force of nature. His powerful, colourful baritone adds strength and menace to his character, and is positively breathtaking.
Putting together a Beast is difficult to make believable, particularly in a small theatre. Áine Plunkett’s makeup was seamless, from a huge beard, horns, face makeup, even hand makeup. The makeup application was impressive, as was Cook’s ability to have his emotions read through so much makeup and hair obscuring his features.
Costume design by Stephanie Ko is beautiful. Gorgeous, sumptuous gowns and suits with lush fabrics perfectly set the period and style with virtually no set pieces. Likewise, the projections onto the draped fabric are subtle and tasteful and made the small theatre feel simultaneously spacious and intimate.
Music Director Perri Lo brings great skill and sensitivity to a challenging score. With a small chamber opera, and only 3 characters, Lo did a masterful job of performing the music without ever getting in the way of the voices or text.
The score itself was haunting, and felt largely unresolved throughout giving a constant sense of tension to the story. There were ongoing dynamic shifts of mood and intensity that were clever and unexpected.
Finally, the entire show opened with a greeting and song by xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam)/ Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) artist Sempulyan. He performed the Paddle song and was a wonderful inclusion of Indigenous artists as a part of the performance.
East Van Opera has been an innovative, risk-taking company, and presenting new works such as Beauty’s Beast keeps them at the leading edge of contemporary opera in Vancouver.