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.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
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.