09 Sep 2008
Prom 70 — St François d’Assise
Even a concert performance of Messiaen’s St François d’Assise could hardly fail to be an event.
For its annual visit to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, Glyndebourne brought its new production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, an opera which premiered 200 years ago.
‘A caprice written with the point of a needle’: so Berlioz described his opera Béatrice and Bénédict, which pares down Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to its comic quintessence, shorn of the sub-plots, destroyed reputations and near-bloodshed of Shakespeare’s original.
‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.’ It is, perhaps, a line quoted too often; yet, even though it may not have been entirely accurate on this occasion, it came to my mind. Its accuracy might be questioned in several respects.
Central City Opera celebrated the 60th anniversary of The Ballad of Baby Doe with a hip, canny, multi-faceted new production.
Someone forgot to tell Central City Opera that it would be difficult to fit Puccini’s (usually) architecturally large Tosca on their small stage.
A cast worthy of Bayreuth made for an unforgettable Wagnerian experience at the Sommer Festspiele in Baden-Baden.
Loving attention to the highest quality was everywhere evident in Des Moines Metro Opera’s Manon.
Des Moines Metro Opera had (almost) all the laughs in the right places, and certainly had all the right singers in these meaty roles to make for an enjoyable outing with Verdi’s masterpiece
With the thermometers reaching boiling point, there’s no doubt that summer has finally arrived in London. But, the sun seems to have been shining over the large marquee in Holland Park all summer.
J.S. Bach’s cerebral Art of the Fugue in Aix, Verdi’s massive Requiem in Orange, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ ‘s fable of the camel, jackal, wolf and crow, Sophocles’ blind Oedipus Rex and the Bible’s triumphant Psalm No. 150 in Aix.
The champagne corks popped at the close of this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House, with Prince Orlofsky’s celebratory toast forming a fitting conclusion to some superb singing.
Bryn Terfel is making a habit of performing Russian patriarchs at the Proms.
What happens when just everything about an operatic performance goes joyously right?
Two years ago, the well-established Des Moines Metro Opera experimented with a 2nd Stages program, with performances programmed outside of their home stage at Simpson College.
What to make of the unannounced decision to open this concert with the Marseillaise? I am sure it was well intended, and perhaps should leave it at that.
In a fairy-tale, it can sometimes feel as if one is living a dream but on the verge of being awoken to a shock. Such is life in these dark and uncertain days.
The tense, three hour knock-down-drag-out seduction of Beauty by Pleasure consumed our souls in this triumphal evening. Forget Time and Disillusion as destructors, they were the very constructors of the beauty and pleasure found in this miniature oratorio.
Three parallel universes (before losing count) — the ephemeral Debussy/Maeterlinck masterpiece, the Debussy symphonic tone poem, and the twisted intricacies of a moldy, parochially English country estate.
This, alas, was where I had to sign off. A weekend conference on Parsifal (including, on the Saturday, a showing of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal film) mean that I missed Götterdämmerung, skipping straight to the sequel.
The culmination of Opera North’s “Ring for Everyone”, this Götterdämmerung showed the power of the condensed movement so necessary in a staged performance - each gesture of each character was perfectly judged - as well as the visceral power of having Wagner’s huge orchestra on stage as opposed to the pit.
Even a concert performance of Messiaen’s St François d’Assise could hardly fail to be an event.
As a centrepiece of the Proms centenary celebrations, this Netherlands Opera performance, more or less shorn of its Amsterdam production, was certainly a memorable occasion. It was disappointing that the audience was so small; in my naïveté, I had assumed that the rarity value alone would have guaranteed a large house, perhaps even a sell-out. The performance nevertheless received rapturous acclaim from true believers at the end of its well-nigh six hours (inclusive of two intervals).
There were many things to praise in this performance. The Hague Philharmonic Orchestra played very well, with especially valued contributions from its woodwind and percussion sections. The opening material, which returns throughout the opera, from awesomely synchronised tuned percussion was arresting, transfixing even, likewise the punchy wind ritornello that runs in parallel throughout the first scene. Messiaen’s huge woodwind — including seven (!) clarinets — and percussion sections — ten players in total — were throughout given their full head, nowhere more so than in the numerous auditions of the Gerygone ( piccolos, xylophone, and glockenspiel). The unusual seating, with strings on the left of the conductor and wind to the right underlined visually and audibly the sectional writing. Percussion ran along the back of the stage, whilst the three ondes martenot were positioned one immediately in front of the conductor, with the other two in boxes on either side of the hall, again providing a fine sense of spatial awareness. One case in which this truly paid dividends was in the bizarre scoring for low ondes, double basses and contrabassoon during Lauds. Nor should one forget the strings. The sequence of exultation and ravishing, transformative orchestral beauty (strings and ondes) upon the healing of the Leper was unforgettable, as was the Angel’s musical performance (strings and ondes again): ethereal, divine music. The brass section really came into its own shortly afterwards and for the final scene, depicting St Francis’s death. Here was true majesty.
The ritual basis of the work came across very clearly, never more so than in the opening exchanges between St Francis and Brother Leo, which put me in mind of those between Mime and the Wanderer in Siegfried. On the other hand, there were passages in which the music and drama — such as it is — dragged, most of all in the latter half of the long second act. Whilst Ingo Metzmacher’s direction was for the most part impressive, the length of this act and the preponderance — at least after the rejuvenated fourth scene depicting the Journeying Angel — of contemplative music prepares a trap of somnolence that is very difficult to avoid. Rhythms, especially when it came to birdsong, were commendably tight. However, I did not feel that the score had always been quite so internalised as on, say, Kent Nagano’s superlative live recording from Salzburg. I also felt that Metzmacher might have wrung more sweetness, even sickliness out of the strings, on certain occasions. (Simon Rattle’s Turangalîla still echoed in my mind.) Metzmacher and the other performers were not, of course, helped by the lack of staging. This is no fault of the Proms, but sometimes I missed what might have come from a fully staged performance. In many senses, Messiaen’s work is an oratorio of distinct scenes or frescoes rather than an opera as conventionally or even unconventially understood, yet it nevertheless appears to cry out for staging. We should be grateful to the Proms for its contribution, whilst petitioning our opera companies — above all, the Royal Opera — to carry out their duty.
The solo singing was good, although there was a lack of any truly charismatic ‘star’ performance, which might have elevated the dramatic experience onto another level. In the title role, Rod Gilfry’s performance was of a generally high standard, although he lost the competitive edge with the orchestra on a few occasions. He acted as much as he could, making me want to see him in a full production, in which what seemed to be an impressively detailed characterisation might shine more fully. One could forgive his tiring towards the end of the second act and in parts of the third, but at the same time one could not help but notice it. Messiaen said that he wanted the soprano Angel’s voice to ‘be almost as pure as Pamina’s in The Magic Flute’. Heidi Grant Murphy achieved this to some extent, yet there were times when her voice became quite tremulous. The principal problem with her performance was the diction. I was extremely grateful for the text and translation in the programme, since the proportion of words that were comprehensible was often small indeed. Hubert Delamboye presented a vividly characterised Leper, with notably more idiomatic French than some other members of the cast. Whilst Hank Leven’s Brother Leo was eminently credible in dramatic terms — even without any staging to speak of — his repeated statements of ‘J’ai peur’ suffered from surprisingly strange vowel sounds. His sweet yet vulnerable tenor otherwise seemed just right for the role. Although it is a relatively small role, I was probably most impressed by Charles Workman’s Brother Masseo, which in its combination of thoughtfulness, musicality, and palpable practical piety — if you will forgive the excessive alliteration — seemed to me in every respect beyond reproach.
Overall, it was the third act that left the most powerful impression, not least through the outstanding choral contribution. In a 1992 interview with Jean-Christophe Marti, Messiaen remarked: ‘The stigmata represent the supreme mark if divinity on man, and this mark is painful.’ The composer was certainly convinced of the literal truth in this respect concerning St Francis, and indeed others, pointing to ‘a volume of eyewitness accounts, Considerations on the Stigmata, [which] leaves us in no doubt as to the veracity of the facts concerning Saint Francis’. The burning quality — in more than one sense — of Messiaen’s conviction is unmistakeable in the seventh scene and was unmistakeable in the performance. The chorus truly came into its own, here speaking as Christ: ‘C’est Moi, c’est Moi, c’est Moi, je suis l’Alpha et l’Oméga.’ In one sense, one might think of the opening Burning Bush scene of Moses und Aron. However, the apocalyptic nature of Messiaen’s vision is powerfully conveyed not through contrapuntal means but through solid blocks of homophony. The ecstasy of the chorus at the scene’s close was so strong that the lack of staging was now totally forgotten. In the following scene, the final chorus of the work brimmed with apocalyptic fervour and brought the performance to an overwhelming conclusion.
St François should perhaps be understood a synthetic work, like Busoni’s Doktor Faust, although I am not sure that Messiaen’s opera, despite its confessional advantage, has quite the Aquinas-like sense of summation of Busoni’s, its unfinished state notwithstanding. There is something compendious to St François. As Messiaen himself observed, ‘it contains virtually all the bird calls that I’ve noted down in the course of my life, all the colours of my chords, all my harmonic procedures.’ And yet, there are sections in which variety does appear to be lacking. Messiaen’s assemblage, his trademark juxtaposition in place of development, does not achieve uniformly favourable results, especially when confronted with so vast a time-span. Eternity, so often the composer’s concern, is not at all the same thing as a long time; indeed, if it can be dealt with or even hinted at at all, it is often better treated in the twinkling of an eye. Comparisons with Wagner seem to me quite to miss the point, serving only to draw attention to the lack of plasticity in much of Messiaen’s material and a less than infallible dramatic sense. As I mentioned above, the lack of staging was something of a problem in this respect, although one should doubtless not exaggerate. At its best, however, St François d’Assise stands as a monument to the belief, imagination, and accomplishment of one of the great composers of the twentieth century. It also reminds us that he stood both close to and yet distinct from many of that century’s most central compositional concerns. This distance could sometimes be a weakness yet could equally be a strength; it undoubtedly testifies to the astonishing singularity of Olivier Messiaen and his music.