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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

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