Prom 70 ó St FranÁois d’Assise

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 naÔvetÈ, 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

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 TurangalÓla 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’OmÈga.’ 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 FranÁois 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 FranÁois. 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 FranÁois 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

image_description=St. Francis of Assisi by El Greco
product_title=Olivier Messiaen: St FranÁois d’Assise (1975ñ83)
product_by=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), AndrÈ Morsch (Brother Rufus), Chorus of The Netherlands Opera. The Hague Philharmonic. Ingo Metzmacher (cond.)
Concert performance, Royal Albert Hall, London, 7 September 2008