Not so much a story of love as a story of liberation attempted, and with questions left unanswered at the end, La Belle de la Bête may become something very special in its finished form. This was an exciting concert performance of some extracts at the Tête à Tête festival at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith.
La Belle de la Bête means “the beauty of – or from – the beast”. The question posed to us in the programme, and in this opera, by the Barbadian librettist Clarke Melville is whether a society with its roots in evil, such as an English-owned sugarcane plantation in 1962 Barbados, founded on slavery and perpetuated by semi-slavery, can ever produce something beautiful and free, untainted by its past.
When the English Earl of Gawthrup meets our lovely heroine Sonia, a local beauty, one of the first things he focuses on about her is “how free” she is; he feels restricted and undermined by his position, his responsibilities, and his redoubtable mother, and thinks finally he has found someone free – with whom he can be free. But though Sonia, insouciant, hopeful, playful and determined, might seem free to Edward, her own life is not without constraint: the main one of which is her family’s hatred and scepticism of their colonial masters. While no one is a slave, many people in this opera remain oppressed by tradition, by expectation, and by former generations – on both sides. The fact that Sonia and Edward first meet while flying kites, objects which soar in the air and strain at their leash, but which can never ultimately get away, is deliciously apt.
There are other felicities in the libretto, such as the multiplicity of “belles”; we have belle, a beautiful woman, Bel Plantation, a place whose beauty is certainly skin deep (if that), and church bells, which are overheard as well as mentioned. A lovely line of Sonia’s on meeting Edward is that she felt “trapped at the bottom of his eyes”. And when the two great matriarchs (Edward’s and Sonia’s mothers) meet each other in the slave graveyard, the atmosphere crackles into instant, dangerous acid. The local patois and the RP of the English
contingent are nicely contrasted (and balanced) throughout.
It is difficult to get a true overall impression of quite what a finished opera will eventually be from an early concert performance, like this, of certain scenes only: but what we heard was very exciting. Pete M. Wyer, the British composer, is definitely at his most lyrical when composing for the chorus, and the opening scene, in which the sharp sounds of chopping canes pause for the canecutters to sing the Angelus as a church bell strikes noon, was hauntingly beautiful, with just the right balance of ecclesiastical structure and Pentecostal warmth. The same theme was repeated later by Sonia and her mother in the slave graveyard as a beautiful soprano duet, which gradually grew back into a chorus piece as more members of the company joined in. For me, these prayers were the absolute musical high points of the piece.
I also loved Jackman Meyers’ early bass aria (“Only a watchman”), sung very skilfully by Adam Green, while Sonia (sung at impressively short notice by Helen Withers) was given a pretty aria of her own (“Can you see me?”) as she longed for Edward, one suspects hopelessly, from afar. Because of the nature of the performance, Pete M. Wyer was (against his intentions) forced to use recorded music and sounds in most scenes. It is hard for recorded music to capture the feel of a real orchestra, but one virtue of this situation was the very interesting, instantly enlivening effect when the sound of real piano and voices met recorded sound.
As a lifelong fan of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, and Charlotte Brontë, anything set on a tropical island involving a lovelorn aristocratic Englishman called Edward tends to call to me. What I found in this opera was rather different; not so much a story of love as a story of liberation attempted, and we don’t yet know how that story will end – but its greatest moments promise something very special to come.