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St. Francis of Assisi by El Greco
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.

Olivier Messiaen: St François d’Assise (1975–83)

Rod Gilfry (St Francis), Heidi Grant Murphy (Angel), Hubert Delamboye (Leper), Henk Neven (Brother Leo), Charles Workman (Brother Masseo), Donald Kaasch (Brother Elias), Armand Arapian (Brother Bernard), Jan Willem Balijet (Brother Sylvester), André Morsch (Brother Rufus), Chorus of The Netherlands Opera. The Hague Philharmonic. Ingo Metzmacher (cond.)
Concert performance, Royal Albert Hall, London, 7 September 2008


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.

Mark Berry

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