Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Peter Sellars' kinaesthetic vision of Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro

On 24th May 1594 just a few weeks before his death on 14 June, the elderly Orlando di Lasso signed the dedication of his Lagrime di San Pietro - an expansive cycle of seven-voice penitential madrigale spirituali, setting vernacular poetry on the theme of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ - to Pope Clement VIII.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht

Stockhausen was one of the most visionary of composers, and no more so than in his Licht operas, but what you see can often get in the way of what you hear. I’ve often found fully staged productions of his operas a distraction to the major revelation in them - notably the sonorities he explores, of the blossoming, almost magical acoustical chrysalis, between voices and instruments.

David McVicar's Andrea Chénier returns to Covent Garden

Is Umberto’s Giordano’s Andrea Chenier a verismo opera? Certainly, he is often grouped with Mascagni, Cilea, Leoncavallo and Puccini as a representative of this ‘school’. And, the composer described his 1876 opera as a dramma de ambiente storico.

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Olivier Messiaen: Saint François d’Assise  (De Nederlandse Opera)
09 Jun 2008

St. Francis in Amsterdam

It is a bit hard to know what to make of Olivier Messiaen’s colossal piece “Saint François d’Assise,” beautifully mounted by Netherlands Opera.

Olivier Messiaen: Saint François d’Assise

L´Ange (Camilla Tilling), Saint François (Rod Gilfry), Le Lépreux (Hubert Delamboye), Frère Léon (Henk Neven), Frère Massée (Tom Randle), Frère Élie (Donald Kaasch), Frère Bernard (Armand Arapian), Frère Sylvestre (Jan Willem Baljet), Frère Rufin (André Morsch), Residentie Orkest, Koor van De Nederlandse Opera, directed by Martin Wright.

All photos courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera

 

Nearly everything about the writing seems over the top. Its incredible length. Its massive orchestral forces. Its sanctimonious religious posturings. All seems calculated not just to merely impress or to move, but to wallop you over the head with some quasi-spiritual revelation.

In assessing the stage worthiness of lyric theatre pieces, Joseph Kernan wrote “the best operas are dramatic, the failures are no proof at all.” Let’s just say that “Saint François” is to my taste, well, not dramatic. Most everything about it resembled a cleverly staged oratorio. To that end, the gigantic orchestra was placed on stage (it probably wouldn’t fit in the pit!). Scaffolding and ramps and a huge balcony are built around the band, intentionally including it in the stage picture.

That leaves the simple story to play out on the huge apron in front of it which covered the unused pit. And the dramatic content of that story goes something like this: Saint counsels fearful monks. Saint heals leper. Saint talks to birds. Saint receives stigmata. And dies.

Oh, yeah, and a busybody angel visits and spooks the bejesus out of the scaredy-cat monks. I joke — slightly — but this thin plot is stretched out of all proportion into well over five hours. What almost energizes and sustains the story-telling is the masterful stagecraft of designer Jean Kalman and director Pierre Audi, for they have devised some beautifully evocative effects.

Act One finds a pile of simple (mostly black) wooden crosses center stage, a lone bench, and a “reveal” of a pulpit on an elevated platform. As other crosses are added to the pile, the imagery suggested so many possibilities. Do they represent of martyrs’ bodies? A pyre created by religious fanaticism? Holocaust victims? It raised expectations (unfulfilled, alas) that the piece might have something to say beyond presenting a public face of the composer’s private, deeply felt Catholicism.

Although that imagery was never fully developed, Act Two’s stylized rolling trees made of bare planks always reminded us that the cross of Christ was in fact made from a tree, and the slightly raked black platform center stage allowed for some beautiful artistic groupings which were put into fine dramatic relief against the ground cloth. In Act Three, the crosses were piled up in a semi-circle at the base of a lone rude tree, like so much concertina wire forming a base of thorns. The simple small wooden platform in front of this was a perfect focus for “François’” last moments.

Audi is a master at slowly building visual tension; and delving deep into characters’ souls to devise complex relationships, varied stage movement, and evolving pictures of complete inevitability. He did his level best to wring every last viable possibility out of the repetitive moments of the repetitive moments of the repetitive moments of the . . .stop me!

St_Francis_03.jpgThe well-crafted straight forward confrontation between “Saint François” and the “Leper” fairly crackled. A wonderfully tender relationship was developed between “François” and the fearful “Léon,” which seethed with subtext. “The Angel’s” every scene had a haunting visual beauty and meaningful interaction, with excellent use of levels for psychological impact.

That said, even Mr. Audi and his design team could not salvage the interminable final scene of Act Two with the children and the birds. Long after we got the point, and got it again, like the Energizer Bunny it went on and on and on. Oh, they made a good stab at maintaining our interest with some playful writing of the birds’ names on the bare trees with Magic Marker, and the genial waving about of colorful paper birds. But long after the Marker was dry and arms were dead tired of bird-play, it kept churning, not in a mesmerizing Phillip Glass sort of way, just. ..churning in fits and starts.

Critically, it seemed that “François’” death went for too little. Perhaps we waited too long for it? Or perhaps a better visual solution could have been found other than having the dead man file off between the choristers. Although the lighting was excellent throughout, the script says the final lighting effect should glow blindingly brighter where “François” had lain. Instead, a truncated bank of orange lights glared from behind the upstage scrim like back lighting left over from the Vegas scene of “Dreamgirls.”

Happily, Netherlands Opera’s reliably high quality visuals were matched by a truly wonderful cast. Camilla Tilling’s engaging “Angel” walked off with the show and it is easy to see why. She is possessed of a clear, lovely soprano with plenty of point in all registers. She sings the role with great understanding, masterful phrasing, and complete control of the musical challenges. And, she quite simply has the most beautiful and accessible music in the piece, which she serves very well.

Hubert Delamboye has only once scene as “The Leper” but he wrung every ounce out of it with fiery, securely voiced declamation. The effect of his being cured was magically created by his simply peeling off one of his garish gold and black sleeves to reveal his pure flesh unadorned. Both baritone Henk Neven (“Frére Léon”) and tenor Tom Randle (“Frére Massée”) turned in performances that could not be bettered. In a piece of luxury casting, heroic leading tenor Donald Kaasch sang a fine “Frére Elie.” Armand Arapian, Jan Willem Baljet, and Andre Morsch contributed solid singing in their smaller parts. The excellent chorus was tremendous in their powerful, meticulously schooled phrasing.

St_Francis_02.jpgThat leaves our “Saint François.” Although he was not announced as indisposed, popular baritone Rod Gilfry seemed at times like he might have been a little tired in this first performance after the premiere. He is a fine singer (as well as actor) and he certainly commands a secure technique. But this role is a huge step forward from his core repertoire of “Dulcamara” and “Marcello” and “Papageno.” The rangey writing for a dramatic baritone (or high bass) who seldom leaves the stage, calls on every trick in the singer’s bag. I commend Mr. Gilfry for the considerable success he has had with this assumption, and the fact that he has learned this demanding part speaks well for him as a serious artist.

Indeed, he always displayed utter commitment and total concentration, and lavished us with beautiful outpouring of sound. But it did push him to the limit. For all his success with it, I wonder if he might not retire the role from his repertoire for a few years until age provides a bit more heft and stamina? With his chiseled good looks and designer white robe, he did not look the ascetic monk so much as a very caring fashion model (is there such a thing?) before a Prada ad shoot. Other than that, I found Angelo Figus’ costumes highly creative and character-specific. The “Angel’s” several apparitions were beautifully attired, especially her knock-out plastic gown that looked like a Kandinsky had collided with a shower curtain. No kidding. Wild and wonderful!

It is hard to over-praise Ingo Metzmacher and his superb Resident Orchestra for their thrilling reading of this gigantic score. Their attention, concentration and musicality never flagged over an exceedingly long evening. For all my reservations about the dramatic viability of the piece, there is some remarkable writing in it. All of the “Angel’s” scenes, including her motif are ravishing; the “Leper” is well characterized; the choral writing is compelling; and “François’” solo and duet scenes with “Léon” and “Massée” contain many serenely beautiful musical themes and haunting melodies.

But that jittery wind section repeats about ten times too often, and what seem to be logical musical climaxes simply frustrate us by morphing into another repetitive section, or more jittery winds. To me, it seemed that Messiaen the Catholic sometimes indulgently eclipsed Messiaen the musical crafts smith.

Is “Saint François d’Assise” a viable opera? Kernan be damned, Netherlands Opera thinks it is. And they are to be congratulated for coming to grips with it with well-considered solutions, and for treating us to a thoroughly engaging and uncompromisingly professional production.

James Sohre

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):