"Andrè Grètry was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his times," says Renaud Doucet, director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' production of Grètry's Beauty and the Beast. It's hard to disagree. Grètry was France's dominant opera composer during the 18th century. He churned out 70 musical plays, most of them hits. Even more remarkable was his ability to bend with the political wind. He was a favorite of Marie Antoinette, who made him music director of the court of her husband King Louis XVI and set up an annual pension to keep him composing. Twenty years later, during the French Revolution, Grètry's operas were the preferred form of relaxation for Robespierre and crew after a busy day at the guillotine. They did, however, take away his government paycheck. But fast-forward a decade or so, and Napoleon awarded Grètry the Legion of Honor and restored his pension.
French comic operas, especially Grètry's, haven't worn so well in the succeeding 250 years. That's because it's a highly stylized, rigid, overblown and in the end totally goofy art form. Doucet and his partner, set and costume designer Andrè Barbe, have chosen to dive headfirst into the goofiness. Their version of Beauty and the Beast is a finely crafted, extravagant and totally over the top de-Disneyfication of the classic kids' tale. It's also the best night of pure theater I've seen in some time.
Doucet and Barbe's magic kingdom starts with one of the most fabulous stage sets ever concocted by the imaginations of OTSL's design and construction crew. Everything is animated: Hedges move. Tables set themselves. Topiaries roll in and out. Flowers fly. Magic mirrors appear and disappear. A giant dragon drops from the ceiling, grinning like a piece of berserk ductwork and then spirits away Zèmire (Beauty). A craggy candelabra tree lights it all.
Every element of the show seems to have a life of its own. In an OTSL first, the audience actually applauded a prop -- twice. The first contraption that engendered adulation was Barbe's wacky answer to a demand in the script that Zèmire be carried away on a cloud. (You have to see it to believe it.) The dragon was the second to evoke handclapping delight.
Barbe's costumes are even more whimsical than his sets. Azor (The Beast) is typically portrayed as a cross between a mean-looking Wookie and Sasquatch. Doucet and Barbe have turned him into a bird of prey. Tenor John Osborn does an incredible acting job as the enchanted prince, singing from beneath a splendid and enchanting costume of feathers and talons.
But the best costumes belong to the extras. The forest spirits who serve Azor's house are cleverly dressed in ancien regime formalwear crafted of Astroturf and twigs. I know it sounds weird, but the effect is simultaneously eerie and comical. French opera usually stops for a ballet in the middle. In this one the Doucet/Barbe team concoct an authentic baroque dance, only to bring a fine edge of absurdity by topping the exquisite silk and satin of the dancers' 18th-century French court costumes with gigantic puffed-up bird heads. They look like a bunch of Fredbird's social-climbing relatives.
A singer could get buried in a production like this. But Anna Christy as Zèmire brings sweet sincerity to a delicately balanced performance. Her purity of voice beautifully reflects the openhearted character she plays. Joined by fellow sopranos Kiera Duffy and Alison Tupay as her haughty, selfish sisters and baritone Hugh Russell as her father, they sing like they're related. Jeremy Little (behind an outlandish moustache) adds rubber-limbed comic relief and another layer of harmony as family servant Ali.
Baroque music specialist Jeannette Sorrell joins in the fun. Grètry was no great composer, but Sorrell churns his simple tunes into storms at sea, thunder and lightning, graceful dances and echoes of the exotic and fanciful birds portrayed onstage. One of the many pleasures of the evening is catching a glimpse Ms. Sorrell physically flowing with the music, mouthing the words along with the singers in the opera equivalent of air guitar.