Messiaen’s St-François d’Assise at the Nederlandse Opera

June 1st, 2008 · < Q >

St-François d’Assise

Opera in three Acts and eight Scenes

Libretto and Music by Olivier Messiaen

A New Production of the Nederlandse Opera
Première Performance of 1 June 2008
Het Musiktheater, Amsterdam

Musical Direction: Ingo Metzmacher
Director: Pierre Audi
Sets and Lighting: Jean Kalman
Costumes Angelo Figus
Video: Ervan Huon
Dramaturge: Klaus Bertisch
Choral Director: Martin Wright
Resident Orchestra and Choir of the Nederlandse Opera

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

an account by KEN QUANDT

The saints have shown us many ways to live a perfect life. Yet somehow the lesson we tend to come away with is that the saints are special, rather than their lives. We know they would not have it this way, that they want us to know and to use what they have learned in our own lives rather than idolize them; and we know this because this is what their lives and actions always teach us. Therefore we need to be told their lives over and over again. Saint Francis is a perfect case. As we come to know him, we are stunned by his humility — not because we wish we were less proud, but because his humility, as it is described by the stories of his life, is so credible.

It was just these stories that Olivier Messiaen used for his libretto to this opera, and the greatness of this opera ultimately relies on the greatness of Francis’s life. Productions of the St-François d’Assise are mounted seldom and revived even less. The newest, which premiered in Amsterdam today, is the third of this millennium, after San Francisco in 2001 and Paris in 2004. The great news is that this production is at least as great as those. I’ll start with a description of the staging. For a synopsis of the action see my previous review of the Paris 2004 production.

The orchestra Messiaen called for is so large the Netherlands production has put it onto the stage behind the proscenium, dispensed with a curtain, and placed the action in front of it, onto a platform built over the pit. As we enter the hall we see the orchestra in the rear split by a five-foot path that cuts through it from the center back on an angle. The conductor’s stand is offset to the right. In front of this on the right of the semicircular platform there is a large rough icon of a tree made of black planks slapped together; in the center a heap of black crosses; and a bench and a small stepped platform on the left. Above and behind the orchestra there is a large scaffold, and scaffolds on the right and left sides of the stage, all softened by scrim. Above everything is a white ceiling with a huge oval opening showing a dark blue sky above. A forward sheet of scrim at the depth of the proscenium helps to separate the orchestra’s space behind from the space in front where the action will take place.

After the orchestra tunes the lights go dimmer and we expect the conductor to come on and assume the position in this strange location center stage. Instead the lights go dimmer and then go out. In a moment they rise a little, characters begin to move onto the stage, the conductor is at the podium, and the music begins. The conspicuous relocation of the conductor has been made inconspicuous by having him enter in the dark.

Francis and the brothers are dressed in traditional capuchins with hoods. There is no attempt at all to represent the monastery nor even the door the angel will knock on too loudly in the fourth scene, but just sparse furniture on the stage and scaffolding all around on which the angel or the huge chorus (dressed in flat black hooded gowns) can appear.

In comparison with other productions this one stresses the interaction of François with the other characters rather than placing him on a pedestal. A great innovation along these lines came in the Sixth Scene, the Sermon to the Birds. Where in other productions Francis faces the audience and finds the birds out there, we have in this case a set of twenty children dressed in bright colored robes receiving a sort of nursery school class from Francis and Massée. All sorts of playful business help fill the lengthy music, including drawing on the stage with chalk and improvised play with toy birds. For Messiaen as for Francis, birds tell men about God as much as men see God in birds: they are part of the community of creation. This is made a little easier to understand by bringing the children in.

In stressing the life lived with dramaturgy, over the iconography of saint we admire for living it, this production leaves us with a more concrete sense of the personal truth of François. For this Rod Gilfry did a wonderful job, and the emphasis on action took some attention away from the question whether he could replace the voice of José Van Dam, which no voice can. In fact, during the First Act, to my consternation, his voice faltered six or seven times as he moved to the upper notes. At the beginning of the second we had an announcement that he was singing sick and thereafter the faltering almost disappeared. By the Third Act it was clear he would have to reach beyond his own expectations to complete the piece, and he did. In the closing scene, which was made to depict not the death of Francis but Francis dying, Gilfry’s personal effort during the whole afternoon culminated by bringing everything else to a climax. His final scale upward, praying that God fill him, ravish him, inebriate him with His excess of truth, came through with heart, free of straining effort though slightly clipped, and made me sob.

There were two great costumes, the Leper and the second garb of the Angel, once she revealed herself to Francis in the Fifth Scene. The latter was a close representation of the nutty kaleidoscopic detail Messiaen called for in the libretto, rather than the plain whites and wonderful one-winged monochrome blue of previous productions. But the Leper was a new idea and a tour de force. He had a plastic scuba-like suit of lemon yellow and black irregular shapes all over, and looked like a gila monster but shiny. Here the acting of Hubert Delamboye and, as everywhere else, the directing of Klaus Bertish deserves special mention.

There are many moments in this opera where the main tones being sung fall in between tones you can name. One comes near the end of Scene Four when Bernard answers the question he has Jesus put to him, that he hopes the face he wears should be the likeness of His (de Vous, de Vous). Several come in the Sermon to the Birds, Francis singing. Our Angel added a new one that I think did not belong there, a rather too sharp note when she delivered the truth to the Leper in the Third Scene. But in the purity of her delivery, Camilla Tilling held this wrong note without a slip, just as she held all her other notes without a slip, and they were all perfectly in tune. She is very pregnant at this time and it affected her long notes not at all.

Everybody could see Metzmacher at work throughout, and yet he was not overly conspicuous except for a moment during the scene change between the first and second scenes. The piece is almost unplayable — I detected only two minor slips. The long intervals of bird music in the Sixth Scene were perfect. Though he was placed behind the singers rather than in their line of sight nobody missed a cue (there were a few monitors for the singers, including one in the front row center). Unfortunately the piccolo part that announces the arrival of the Angel had to be brought off by a mere human: placed right in the front of the orchestra it came off too loud and shrilly out of tune. Soon enough the xylophone takes it up and covers the error; let’s hope this can somehow get fixed.

The chorus was magnificent. Their last note, with orchestral tutti and gleaming white light from the rear of the stage, was louder than the last note of any Gurrelieder I have heard. As to the light, it might have been the very same one Nordey used at the Paris production in 2004: a rectangular array, ten by twenty feet, of about thirty spots that gradually brighten to a level you cannot believe you can still look at, and then black out for the end.

For me the crucial message from Francis’s life is his discovery, which Messiaen places right at the beginning, that although we might be glad to have all the abilities and good things that God has given us, the only thing we can really take credit for is accepting some part of the pain of Jesus on the Cross with equanimity. This alone is perfect joy. We must not confuse this act of acceptance with self-flagellation: life inflicts enough injustice on us and it is the acts of others we must accept and forgive, not our own. The theme returns in the penultimate scene, when Francis prays that God grant him two things before he dies: to suffer the pain Jesus suffered on the Cross and to find himself in possession of the love with which Jesus was able to forgive those who inflicted this pain upon him. The fulfillment of these two wishes was emblematized in Francis receiving the stigmata, one of the fullest experiences of God’s presence an individual can imagine undergoing. It is the function of great art to remind us of these stories and show how very credible they are, how close and near at hand it is for us to bring their pattern into our own lives.

I am very thankful for the great work that went into this production.

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