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Bob Goepfert Reviews Opera Saratoga's Production Of "Zemire Et Azor"

SARATOGA SPRINGS - Not all opera has to be flamboyant or grand to be successful.  Opera Saratoga is offering “Zemire Et Azor,” a sublime rendering of an almost 250 year old version of the well-known fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast” that is enormously satisfying.   

It’s not only a visual treat and a gorgeous listening experience, it is an example how the power of ancient tales and myths still move and inspire us.  It is a lesson about the eloquence of simplicity.

“Zemire Et Azor” does what every good opera should do – entertain and enlighten.  The singing is lovely.   The dancers are graceful and the giant puppet representing the beast Azor is cleverly designed so as to be intimidating without being threatening

Indeed, the huge puppet dominates the visual portion of the presentation.  It takes four people to operate and they do it with precision, capturing the emotions of the creature that ranges from anger, to love, to heartbreak. It’s a phenomenal achievement by James Ortez, who designed the puppet, the set and directed the production.  

The performers match the technical aspects of the production.

Maureen McKay is a charming Zemire, the woman who sacrifices herself to live with a beast-like creature in order to save her father’s life.  She shows the woman to be as humble as she is beautiful, and as kind as she is brave. It’s a delicate performance that is always true to the character.  As for singing, the cliché she sings as lovely as a bird is proven true as her solo that captures the beauty of a bird in flight stops the show.

As the beast, Andrew Bidlack finds power in stillness.  He plays most of his performance in the shadows being a voice and alter-ego to the puppet-beast.  Though a rich, clear and eloquent baritone, he never uses his potential power to draw attention to himself.  Yet he is never lost on stage as his disciplined performance results in finding the duality and the soul of Azor.

This duality is further brought out by the design team.   The mask face of Azor’s evokes the sense of Hindu mysticism while Bidlack is dressed in a monk-like robe that suggest Old Testament Judea-Christian teachings.  This subtle merging of two schools of ancient spiritual thought deepens the universal messages of love, trust and stresses the unimportance of material possessions that underscores and enriches this timeless tale.

This is a version of Beauty and the Beast in which you will not find singing teapots or dancing candelabras.  Should you think those absences will make it less appealing to younger audiences – you underestimate the power of art. This is an accessible work that should appeal to audiences of all ages.

It’s more a narrative opera with a lot of dialogue, which is wisely offered in English.  The lyrics are in French accompanied by English Supertitles (which I hope work better than they did on opening night.)

“Zamire Et Azor” is a beautiful opera and Opera Saratoga is offering a tender, wise and creative production.  The final performance is July 14.   For tickets and scheduling information call 584-6018 or go to operasaratoga.org

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management. 

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