Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Classical Opera/The Mozartists celebrate 20 years of music-making

Classical Opera celebrated 20 years of music-making and story-telling with a characteristically ambitious and eclectic sequence of musical works at the Barbican Hall. Themes of creation and renewal were to the fore, and after a first half comprising a variety of vocal works and short poems, ‘Classical Opera’ were succeeded by their complementary alter ego, ‘The Mozartists’, in the second part of the concert for a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony - a work described by Page as ‘in many ways the most iconic work in the repertoire’.

Back to Baroque and to the battle lines with English Touring Opera

Romeo and Juliet, Rinaldo and Armida, Ramadès and Aida: love thwarted by warring countries and families is a perennial trope of literature, myth and history. Indeed, ‘Love and war are all one,’ declared Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote, a sentiment which seems to be particularly exemplified by the world of baroque opera with its penchant for plundering Classical Greek and Roman myths for their extreme passions and conflicts. English Touring Opera’s 2017 autumn tour takes us back to the Baroque and back to the battle-lines.

Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice opened the 2017–18 season at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Michelle DeYoung, Mahler Symphony no 3 London

The Third Coming ! Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Mahler Symphony no 3 with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall with Michelle DeYoung, the Philharmonia Voices and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. It was live streamed worldwide, an indication of just how important this concert was, for it marks the Philharmonia's 34-year relationship with Salonen.

King Arthur at the Barbican: a semi-opera for the 'Brexit Age'

Purcell’s and Dryden’s King Arthur: or the British Worthy presents ‘problems’ for directors. It began life as a propaganda piece, Albion and Albanius, in 1683, during the reign of Charles II, but did not appear on stage as King Arthur until 1691 when William of Orange had ascended to the British Throne to rule as William III alongside his wife Mary and the political climate had changed significantly.

Anne Schwanewilms sings Schreker, Schubert, Liszt and Korngold

On a day when events in Las Vegas cast a shadow over much of the news this was not the most comfortable recital to sit through for many reasons. The chosen repertoire did, at times, feel unduly heavy - and very Germanic - but it was also unevenly sung.

The Life to Come: a new opera by Louis Mander and Stephen Fry

It began ‘with a purely obscene fancy of a Missionary in difficulties’. So E.M. Forster wrote to Siegfried Sassoon in August 1923, of his short story ‘The Life to Come’ - the title story of a collection that was not published until 1972, two years after Forster’s death.

Aida opens the season at ENO

Director Phelim McDermott’s new Aida at ENO seems to have been conceived more in terms of what it will look like rather than what the opera is or might be ‘about’. And, it certainly does look good. Designer Tom Pye - with whom McDermott worked for ENO’s Akhnaten last year (alongside his other Improbable company colleague, costume designer Kevin Pollard) - has again conjured striking tableaux and eye-catching motifs, and a colour scheme which balances sumptuous richness with shadow and mystery.

La Traviata in San Francisco

A beautifully sung Traviata in British stage director John Copley’s 1987 production, begging the question is this grand old (30 years) production the SFO mise en scène for all times.

The Judas Passion: Sally Beamish and David Harsent offer new perspectives

Was Judas a man ‘both vile and justifiably despised: an agent of the Devil, or a man who God-given task was to set in train an event that would be the salvation of Humankind’? This is the question at the heart of Sally Beamish’s The Judas Passion, commissioned jointly by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Philharmonia Baroque of San Francisco.

Choral at Cadogan: The Tallis Scholars open a new season

As The Tallis Scholars processed onto the Cadogan Hall platform, for the opening concert of this season’s Choral at Cadogan series, there were some unfamiliar faces among its ten members - or faces familiar but more usually seen in other contexts.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2017, Millennium Park, Chicago

As a prelude to the 2017-18 season Lyric Opera of Chicago presented its annual concert, Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park, during the last weekend. A number of those who performed in this event will be featured in roles during the coming season.

Die Zauberflöte at the ROH: radiant and eternal

Watching David McVicar’s 2003 production of Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House - its sixth revival - for the third time, I was struck by how discerningly John MacFarlane’s sumptuous designs, further enhanced by Paule Constable’s superbly evocative lighting, communicate the dense and rich symbolism of Mozart’s Singspiel.

Fantasy in Philadelphia: The Wake World

Composer and librettist David Hertzberg’s magical mystery tour that is The Wake World opened to a cheering sold out audience that was clearly enraptured with its magnificent artistic achievement.

A Mysterious Lucia at Forest Lawn

On September 10, 2017, Pacific Opera Project (POP) presented Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a beautiful outdoor setting at Forest Lawn. POP audiences enjoy casual seating with wine, water, and finger foods at each table. General and Artistic Director Josh Shaw greeted patrons in a “blood stained” white wedding suit. Since Lucia is a Scottish opera, it opened with an elegant bagpipe solo calling members of the audience to their seats.

This is Rattle: Blazing Berlioz at the Barbican Hall

Blazing Berlioz' The Damnation of Faust at the Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle, Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, Gabor Bretz, The London Symphony Orchestra and The London Symphony Chorus directed by Simon Halsey, Rattle's chorus master of choice for nearly 35 years. Towards the end, the Tiffin Boys' Choir, the Tiffin Girls' Choir and Tiffin Children's Choir (choirmaster James Day) filed into the darkened auditorium to sing The Apotheosis of Marguerite, their voices pure and angelic, their faces shining. An astonishingly theatrical touch, but absolutely right.

Moved Takes on Philadelphia Headlines

There‘s a powerful new force in the opera world and its name is O17.

Philly Flute’s Fast and Furious Frills

If you never thought opera could make your eyes cross with visual sensory over load, you never saw Opera Philadelphia’s razzle-dazzle The Magic Flute.

At War With Philadelphia

Enterprising Opera Philadelphia has included a couple of intriguing site-specific events in their O17 Festival line-up.

The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall

Three years into their MOZART 250 project, Classical Opera have launched a new venture, The Mozartists, which is designed to allow the company to broaden its exploration of the concert and symphonic works of Mozart and his contemporaries.

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):