Beauty and the Beast, as seen in 1771

Beauty and the Beast, as seen in 1771


norman lebrecht

June 10, 2023

Beauty and the Beast needs little introduction.  Slippedisc, courtesy of OperaVision, is streaming this rarely performed 18th century opera.  Here the magical fairytale finds the form of an entertaining comedy by the Belgian-French composer André Grétry which premiered in Fontainebleau in 1771 with arias, a ballet and spoken dialogue that quickly conquered audiences far and wide. The version that had its first performance at the Mannheim Court Opera in 1776 was the first Italian translation of the opera, which replaced all spoken dialogue with recitatives. Now the Nationaltheater Mannheim’s new production of Zemira e Azor takes to the stage of the historic Schlosstheater Schwetzingen built in 1753. Conductor Bernhard Forck and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin join forces with director, set and costume designer Nigel Lowery to breathe new life into this enchanting work. The main roles are sung by Patrick Kabongo as Prince Azor and Amelia Scicolone as Zemira.  Subtitles in English, Italian and German.

The story is about  Prince Azor who lives in a lonely palace and has been transformed by a vengeful fairy into a beastlike form. When a foreign merchant disturbs the palace peace, the creature-occupant demands a human sacrifice as punishment. Zemira, the merchant’s daughter, is ready to give her life but soon discovers Azor’s beastly form hides an altogether different soul. Will love save the day?


Sandro, a merchant and father of three daughters, is shipwrecked in a storm and loses all his possessions. With his servant Ali, he is stranded in a foreign place where both find refuge in an enchanted castle. Due to excessive drinking Ali feels sleepy and his master urges him to leave in vain. Sandro betrays the hospitality he has just found when he tries to steal a red rose as a souvenir for his daughter Zemira. Suddenly the terrifying lord of the castle, Azor appears and wants to kill Sandro for stealing the rose. When Sandro tries to justify himself and explains that he only wanted to fulfill his daughter’s wish by taking the rose, Azor remains angry but offers a pact: he will spare Sandro if he gives him one of his daughters as a wife. If Sandro betrays him, Azor will take revenge on him; if Sandro keeps the pact, Azor will reward him richly. After some hesitation, Sandro agrees and receives the rose as a token of their agreement.

Brought home by a magic cloud, Sandro tells his daughters that he has lost everything. Zemira, the eldest of the daughters, tries to comfort him, stressing that the happiness of the family stands above any material concerns. She sings about the rose Sandro brought her, not knowing what it cost him. Ali cannot bear Zemira’s distress at her father’s sadness and tells her about the pact with the beast Azor. Sandro must make a decision. Sandro writes a farewell letter to his daughters and wants to break the agreement with Azor.  He prefers to die than lose Zemira. The latter, however, is now privy to the entanglements through Ali and cannot simply accept her father’s death. She is resolved to travel to Azor.


In his palace, Azor laments his ugly appearance with which he has been condemned by a fairy. It would suffice for a maiden to recognise his true core and his inner gentleness for the curse to be lifted. Led to Azor’s home by Ali, Zemira is enraptured by the palace’s interior. She alone holds the fate of her father and the family in her hands, a fact that gives her strength to overcome her fear of the unknown. She realises that Azor is not evil, as his voice sounds gentle and pleasant. She expresses her wish to see her family and Azor shows her an image of her sisters and father in a magical spell. Out of concern for her father, she wants to return to her family. Azor trusts her. He gives Zemira a magic ring that frees her from him; if she throws it away, she will return to him. Zemira swears to return to Azor before sunset, otherwise he will die of loneliness.

When Zemira is back with her family, she tells them of Azor’s kindness, his human feelings and his loving nature. But Sandro is not convinced and wants to keep Zemira away from the island and the supposed monster. Zemira leaves her family and her father gives her up as lost. Meanwhile, the love-struck Azor is determined to put an end to his lonely existence, as he believes that Zemira will never come back. But she keeps her word, and in the face of such devotion and loyalty as well as the confession of love, the fairy’s spell is lifted and he reveals himself in his natural and beautiful form. Zemira is delighted, but one thing is still important to her: the wellbeing of her family. Her father Sandro appears with his other daughters and gives their love his fatherly blessing. The bride and groom sing about the sufferings and joys of love. They promise not to seek out anyone else and to make each other happy. The others join in the jubilation. Faithfulness, truth and honesty prevail.

Available on 10 June 2023 at 1900 CET/ 1800 London/ 1300 New York


  • Murray Citron says:

    I have a fine recording: EMI Classics 75290 ( 2 CDs), with Mady Mesple and Roland Bufkens conducted by Edgard Doneux…also includes some of Gretry’s other dance music.