Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Q review – St-François d’Assise in Geneva

Saturday, May 18th, 2024

St-François d’Assise

Opera in 3 Acts and 8 Scenes
Libretto and Music by Olivier Messiaen
Created at Palais Garnier, Paris, 28 November 1983

New Production:
Grand Théatre de Génève
Première Performance, 11 April 2024

Conductor Jonathan Nott
Director Adel Abdessemed
St-François Robin Adams
L’Ange Claire de Sévigné
Le Lepreux Ales Briscein
Frère Léon Kartal Karagedik
Frère Massée Jason Bridges
Frère Élie Omar Mancini
Frère Bernard William Meinert

Choir of the Grand Theatre de Génève
Le Motet Choir of Geneva
Orchestra of the Suisse Romande

The epidemic of 2020 required two productions of this great opera to be cancelled: this is one of them; the other is a production at Hamburg under Kent Nagano, who might be the living custodian of the opera. The planet has never seen two productions in the same year, not to mention two cancellations; but that it should see two productions resurrected in the same year (this week at Geneva, and at Hamburg in early June) is something of a miracle for those who love it. I first saw it, several times, at its US première in San Francisco, in 2002 (Brieger and Runnicles); and followed it to Paris in 2004 (the Nordey production under Sylvain Chambreling) and to Amsterdam in 2008 (Pierre Audi and Ingo Metzmacher). For me, it’s been years!

The godfather of the rôle is José van Dam and the godfather of the piece is the flamboyant Gerard Mortier who brought it wherever he went (La Monnaie, the Ruhr, Salzburg, Paris, and finally, Madrid, 2011 – again, Nagano), or tried to go (New York, 2010). These two have since gone to their reward and the piece is now interpreted partly in their shadow (the program here in Geneva features an authoritative essay by Mortier) but also in an inevitably “post-historical” light. Witness the experimental production in Stuttgart last year (which I did not), the audience moving about the parks of Stuttgart from act to act, taking in one of the eight scenes with earphones on their walk. And now witness a production by a Director that is an unreligious individual whose confession consists of telling how his own traumatic past in Algeria has left him with a warped and jaded view of the world, and by a Conductor who was slated to conduct it when it was cancelled four years ago, and thought it might be a good idea to spend time in the interim getting the know the piece by listening to it (these details we learn from their autobiographical remarks in the Geneva program).

The times, it must be said, are leaving the opera something of an orphan. The radical piety and personal devotion of Messiaen are readily adored, but from a certain distance: we can expect no more. So much had Bruckner’s been, though with less respect: his music we love for its majesty but readily we dismiss him as a country bumpkin. But when, pray tell, did toothless country piety achieve such majesty? Likewise, what else can we expect from a dreamy bird lover who lusts after “Sister Death” than to crack one day and commit a mass murder, rather than compose longest opera in the standard repertoire? Messiaen may be easier to stomach for being a kook, a generally benign psychic case, but his solidity and perseverance playing the organ at St-Trinité in Paris every week for thirty years belies the supercilious dismissal we are condemned to mete out to him in these wiser times of ours. The scandal was named from the beginning, by Paul, when he called himself no less (nor any more) than a “fool for Christ.”

A “cultural” toleration for the tradition and fragrance of Christianity, particularly Roman, could persevere through the later decades of the Twentieth Century. Mortier himself could say, “Même si je ne suis pas un chrétien je cherche de telles experiences (spirituelles) dans l’art” (a quote from his essay in the Geneva program: note his même si). In such an atmosphere we could still anoint or plume ourselves, especially in company, for understanding rather than being understood, giving before receiving, and seeking to console rather than to be consoled – but the culminating idea, that “in dying we are born to eternal life,” the final line of the poem attributed to Saint Francis, has since lost its scent and meaning. The challenges of recent decades, including the distracting invasion of Islam into the West which we have allowed to corrode our own institutions with our feckless and hollow relativism, the scandalously hidden misdeeds of priests and their overseers, and the toxic hypocrisies of our own Covid behaviors, have so tipped the scales as to leave real Christianity behind, on a socially relevant scale, unknown and simply out of reach. It is no surprise that all the reviews of the present Messiaen production dutifully tote up the same colossal statistics – 8 years of exclusive attention devoted to the composition, 190 performers, a score that weighs 80 kilos, and 5 hours demanded from the audience – but none I have seen acknowledges that Messiaen went to all that trouble in order to save souls, and to do so with the gifts that he had received from God.

Messiaen described the piece as a series of tableaux, not pictorial but conceptual: through dialogue and song (so much like Poulenc!) each scene congeals into an idea, in the manner of a gospel parable. François teaches; he prays for, receives, and gives a healing; he swoons to the divine music of the Angel; he preaches to the birds; he prays to suffer Jesus’ pain and receives the stigmata in response; and he dies. The San Francisco staging in 2002 was minimal and completely adequate to “platform” the scenes; and each scene in Nordey’s Paris version was grounded in a still painting; Audi’s Amsterdam, like the present case, placed the outsized orchestra onto the back of the stage and memorably set a cattywampus pile of black crosses into the middle of the stage (these latter two reviewed here).

In the present case, the Director, because he is known as a “visual artist” will be expected to live up to that moniker by giving us more to look at, and so he does, more than more.  Much of what he puts there for us to see has to do with himself and his view of the world “as” an Algerian emigrant, and has at best a tangential relation to the opera: “J’ ai imaginé à mon tour des tableaux, en m’authorisant une certain liberté par rapport aux images que Messiaen décrit pourtant très précisément dans son livret.” Yes, he has; and though all are stunning some evince a troubling ignorance of the opera’s meaning, among which we might list the gratuitous view of a hammam in the background at the end of the scene at the end of which the Leper is miraculously “cleansed”: the near naked women brought on for the occasion are a tasteless unmiracle.  His Angel takes a moment to imitate the pose of the angel in the annunciation painting on the stage: who knows what Angels might do, and all is forgiven, but childish narcissism hardly comports with her stern treatment of the Vicar moments before. He dresses the brothers in ugly cloaks covered with urban junk as if they were the oppressed and migrant homeless subject to capitalist forces beyond their control, but as Frère Bernard confesses, it was to get away from the detritus of the world that he has come here, and to subject himself willingly to forces beyond his control of a very different kind. The huge reproduction of Cimabue’s portrait of Francis in the vestibule of the friary turns his face into a corporate welcome mat as if he were already famous. The Director places a Star of David into the first scene out of respect for the “Judaic background” of Christianity, but places zero images of the cross in the entire production except for sporadic choreographic poses (and here I must say I believe on the night of the premiere there was a malfunction in the stage machinery: the libretto of course calls for a blindingly illuminated cross at the end, and from fifth row center I could see persons in the third were holding their hands before their eyes: I suspect there was a curtain that did not rise for the rest of us – perhaps an illuminated cross behind it after all). Worst of all, for me – even worse than the gratuitous mini-ascension (lifting ten feet up by wires) of François at the end of the Sixth Tableau to be among the birds – was the way François was depicted in the final two scenes: he receives the stigmata in a darkling corner outside a large church in total shadow, and while Messiaen asks that his costume allows the five wounds to be visible, the Director bloodies his left hand and leaves him in his underpants, continuing on into the death scene, where he flounders about saying goodbye and praying to the Lord in his underwear. Lurching for profundity, the Director has confused the humiliation of personal nakedness with the humility of a pious soul.

As ever, the audience must bring to the libretto the Christian experience that it is meant to evoke, to express which no image after all is adequate, at least on its own. The beauty of birdsong has brought François to God, he sings in thanks at the end; and given the flawless work of the Orchestra and Conductor and the bright sharp singing of Robin Adams and the other characters, so has Messiaen’s stupendous composition done for us, malgré tout. The first thing we hear from Francis in Messiaen’s opera is that “the perfect joy” consists not in glorying over one’s wisdom or his power or ability to prophesy, since these are gifts from God, but in sustaining one’s suffering in this life with the idea that one might therein come closer to Christ, feeling something of the mistreatment and abuse he suffered. To choose to view and sustain our suffering in this perspective is within our own power to do: over this we may glory, and from this we may experience the perfect joy. The first time I heard that idea – in San Francisco, in 2002 – I knew I wanted to breathe in the ambience of such a spirit: I am one of the souls this opera was intended to save, and I look forward to hearing it again in Hamburg: I so look forward to Nagano.

Kenneth Quandt
17 april 24

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

Sunday, June 1st, 2008

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.

“Parsifal” at the Bastille

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008


a stage-consecrating festival play in three acts

Music and Libretto by Richard Wagner

Paris Opera at Bastille
Performance of 17 March 2008

Musical Direction: Hartmut Hänchen
Mise en Scène: Krzysztof “Buy-a vowel” Warlikowski
Sets and Costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak
Lighting: Felice Ross
Video: Denis Gueguin

Director: Miron Hakenbeck
Choral Director: Winfried Maczewski

A New Production

Gurnemanz: Franz Joseph Selig
Kundry: Waltraud Meier
Amfortas: Alexander Marco-Buhrmester
Parsifal: Stig Anderson (for Christopher Ventris)
Titurel: Victor von Halem
Orchestra and Choruses of the Paris Opera

an account by KEN QUANDT

Like the Grail, this is an opera that only feeds the watcher who delights in the good. As such it should be less popular than it is, but the music is so beautiful it will never disappear from the repertoire. Thus, it presents a challenge to music lovers and opera lovers: Find the good.

Q Review: “Pelleas et Melisande” at Covent Garden

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007

Pelléas et Mélisande

an opera in five acts

Music by Claude Debussy
Libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck

Royal Opera House at Covent Garden
Performance of 21 May 2007

Conductor: Simon Rattle
Director: Stanislas Nordey
Set Designer: Emmanuel Clolus
Costume Designer: Raoul Fernandez
Lighting: Philippe Berthomé

A co-production with the Salzburg Easter Festival

Mélisande: Angelika Kirchschlager
Golaud: Gerald Finley
Arkel: Robert Lloyd
Pelléas: Simon Keenlyside

an account by KEN QUANDT


subscribe to the Q review

Sunday, March 18th, 2007

the Q review is now available as an RSS feed to which you can subscribe. If you’re already familiar with RSS, you know that a feed subscription — in your browser, your mail program, or a program created specifically for RSS — will keep an eye out for Ken’s reviews and fetch them for you whenever a new one appears. And if you weren’t already familiar with RSS, well, now you are — and Google Reader is one easy way to get started.

subscribe to Q review feed « subscribe!

You also have options to subscribe to our playlists, to the podcasts, or to the whole classics without walls site over there in the “subscribe” section on the right.

Q review: “Recovered Voices” at the LA Opera

Tuesday, March 13th, 2007

Recovered Voices

Recovering a Musical Heritage
The Music Suppressed by the Third Reich

LA Opera — James Conlon, Musical Director
March 7 (Première Performance)
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

an account by KEN QUANDT


new Q reviews

Friday, March 2nd, 2007

Our oft-roving reviewer Q is off on another cross-country opera trip. The first two reviews are now up:

Glass’s “Illusionist” score

Wednesday, September 27th, 2006

One reason to see The illusionist, apart from the reliable pleasure of watching Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti at work, is to hear Philip Glass’s score. He shows he can do an effective evocation of Vienna (or in this case Prague-standing-in-for-Vienna) while retaining all the signatures of his style. Staying close to conventional becomes a virtue in this case — it’s effective, doesn’t get in the way, and pretty much just works. Think Peer Gynt, a century & change later.

Q review of Saariaho’s Adriana Mater

Saturday, April 8th, 2006

Q’s review of the Saariaho world première at the Bastille is up . . .

david amram aetatis lxxv

Thursday, November 17th, 2005

Sometimes it seems as though everyone who came into contact with Leonard Bernstein turned to gold. David Amram turns 75 today; you can find plenty about him at his home page, in his books Vibrations and Offbeat: collaborating with Jack Kerouac (some reviews here — don’t miss the “sidebar” on “Experiencing Amram”). I’ll just mention two things:

If one has to name genuine landmarks in the realm of movie scores, and is limited to the fingers of one hand, it would be hard to avoid naming, say, Prokofiev’s collaboration with Eisenstein on Aleksandr Nevsky. Seems to me you’d have to include a Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock score — but which one? And it also seems, to me at least, that Schoenberg’s expressive Accompaniment to a cinema scene would actually have to go on the list, not that it ever accompanied a cinema scene, but because Arnie’s conception of such music is to this day the predominant one: audiences still absurdly recoil from his music in the concert hall, then the next evening heartily applaud action adventures or thrillers or even routine comedies and romances with scores that are essentially Schoenberg music. But come up with your own list of scores. In any case, David Amram’s for The Manchurian candidate may be the most remarkable ever written for a motion picture with a large audience. It’s huge — a durchkomponiert tour de force. Rent the movie — hear and see for yourself.

Second, Amram’s 1971 double LP for RCA Victor (rereleased on CD by Rounder) gave this program its name. The title? No more walls.

So thank you, David Amram. May you flourish for many more years.

the Q review is up

Saturday, October 29th, 2005

The reviews that Ken Quandt has published here so far are now collected on the Q review page. Format’s still a little funky, but Ken most definitely is not: check out the only substantial review you’re likely to see — at least for a decade or two — of the big noise out of San Francisco, the SF Opera’s recent production of the John Adams / Peter Sellars Doctor Atomic. Special bonus: Ken’s producer’s diary of our Chicago Ring fest.

a note on the company

Wednesday, March 31st, 2004

“I am the Golux,   
the only Golux in the world,   
and not a mere Device.”

Well, Robert Altman makes hit movies and Golux movies. The former win awards, and make him — loopy politics and all — the toast of the town for a season. Each of the latter is pretty much the only one in the world, and each tends, like the Golux, to vanish instantly; but they are worth paying attention to if one has any desire to know why so many of the best and brightest actors around will drop everything — including their fees — to work with Altman. They’re far from commercial successes, and only Altman can get away with making so many of them. And they’re impossible to assess in any ordinary terms, because even if the beard is describable, the hat most certainly is not.

Mr Altman’s collaboration with Neve Campbell, The company, has pretty much come and gone in a matter of weeks and left no ripple. Sony appears to have decided it was a non-starter ages ago — they couldn’t even be bothered to finish the web site in time for its opening, nor, for that matter, before it closed — which is particularly bizarre in that the movie is by far the best showcase yet for Sony’s high definition digital video. Right they were, of course, that its audience would be limited — anyone could see that a mile away. But the lack of “marketing” support was sadly obvious, near-complete, and to my mind shameful.

The company will no doubt be a happily steady, but respectably minor, seller on DVD, and I’ll certainly look forward to picking up a copy. But those of us who were fortunate enough to have caught it on the big screen, where it truly belongs, are a small but happy lot. Mr Altman and Ms Campbell did not make a masterpiece, but what they made is dependably indescribable, and quite wonderful.

Unfortunately, The company inspired only blank incomprehension in some whose obligation is either to fight their way past incomprehension, or to quit their jobs and find some honest way to make a living, viz. some “critics.” It wasn’t all bad; readers of the New York Times, for instance, got a splendid essay by Anna Kisselgoff entitled “Robert Altman Gets Ballet Right.” But my home paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, predictably printed a “review” by one Ruthe Stein that was so full of misinformation that one wonders if Heuwell Tircuit put her up to it.

For example, the statement — weasel-worded with “allegedly” by Ms Stein — that a relatively normal screenplay was “left on the cutting room floor” while Altman let more and more of the dance footage usurp the running time (thus rendering the plot ever more elliptical in his trademark style), is easily falsifiable simply by consulting published interviews with the principals. The screenplay, in fact, was written so much with the elliptical Altman style in mind that Altman himself found it too hard to follow, and he initially declined to take it on. It was Ms Campbell’s passion for the project, and the advocacy of her co-screenwriter Barbara Turner (an Altman collaborator since the ’50s) that convinced him to do the picture.

Ms Stein reports a number of plot points so inaccurately, in fact, that no one who actually saw the movie could escape the conclusion that she must have fallen asleep midway through it. She lambastes a scene at one character’s apartment, for example, as being completely unconnected with the rest of the plot; “To the best of my knowledge,” she writes, “these people never reappear in the movie. So why are they in it at all?” Never mind that one of “these people” is in many scenes at the ballet company’s office, and the very brief apartment scenes (yes, dear, there is a second scene at the same apartment) do more than establish her unofficial function as the company’s temporary housing provider along with her official factotum duties: they bring us into contact with this crash-pad side of the young artists’ lives more deftly and more vividly than most documentarians could in a whole reel.

(Indeed, if you read through the postings about The company on any large-scale movie forum like IMDb, you’ll find, amid the usual barely literate screeds and self-important Critic-In-Training postings, quite a few thoughtful words from dancers, most of whom say that Altman did indeed get ballet right, and righter than anyone ever has before.)

I wouldn’t recommend The company to a broad audience without many qualifications; indeed, I have not recommended it to my closest friends without many qualifications. But as I’m not, fortunately, a critic, I’m content to point out just a couple of the delights this curious movie has to offer, and commend it to your attention, in the hope you’ll have an opportunity to discover its many other delights without coming after me to get your nine bucks back.

Altman filmed ten complete ballets with multiple cameras — on high-definition video rather than film — and is generous indeed with the footage. Whether or not the modest plot holds any interest for you, I can guarantee that you have never seen filmed dance so thoroughly mesmerizing as what Altman has captured of the Joffrey.

Several of the company’s classics are seen in whole or in part, including Alwin Nikolais’s landmark “Tensile Involvement” (through which the opening titles weave as part of the dance), Gerald Arpino’s “Suite Saint-Saëns,” “Trinity,” and “Light Rain,” and Laura Dean’s “Creative Force.”

Most miraculous of them all is the deeply moving “The White Widow” — a solo dancer, a loop of rope, and Julee Cruise singing “The World Spins” (Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks music with David Lynch lyrics). The choreography for the camera is as rich as Moses Pendleton and Cynthia Quinn’s is for the dancer, with the same economy of means: an overhead view here, a long look into blinding stage lighting there, but for the most part the camera simply gazes at the dance from a few angles and distances, letting us see everything from the duct tape & scuffs on the gouged stage and the heavy mechanics above — the dingy ordinariness of the means of producing the vision — to the essence of the vision itself, languid, wistful, bowed down, ecstatic, resigned, and, at the last, at once tragically earthbound and soaring in eternity.

We get to watch two very different choreographers at work, Lar Lubovich rehearsing his aching “My Funny Valentine” (and coming across as the gentle but impossibly demanding boss you’d give anything to work for), and Robert Desrosiers, whose overambitious new ballet, “The Blue Snake,” taxes the company throughout the story. Desrosiers seems genuinely delighted to offer himself up for parody, gently needled all along as a sort of general-issue wispy Francophone intellectual artiste. From the moment he presents his first sketches for the expensive new production, through early choreography and more elaborate costumed rehearsals, we’re invited to roll our eyes — right along with the dancers — at his absurdly inflated “concept” and ever sillier conceits, at the wacky costumes and incoherent muddle of a story this magnum opus is going to tell. Silly it is, but it turns out in the event to be a charming fairy-tale piece — aimed, like The Thirteen Clocks, primarily, but not only, at children. It may not be exactly deep, but it’s a delightful, crowd-pleasing confection that will at least help pay the bills.

And this overstuffed fairy tale provides Altman with an opportunity that probably only he could treat so deftly. We learn (through a dancer’s dead-on impersonation of Desrosiers) during rehearsals that the “Giant” with which the ballet will conclude has just one problem: “It eats dancers.” And indeed it does; when we finally see it the eyerolling mechanical monstrosity, a human-faced Fafner, shovels dancers into its immense mouth by the fistful, roaring “Fee fie foe fum” the while. We realize that for the last two hours, among other things, we’ve been watching dancers devoured by their own commitment and its resultant endless struggle with paying the bills, and by the relentless & even imprudent commitment of those in whose hands they place themselves for training and direction. Indeed, at the premiere, it is the immense maw that takes the final curtain call of the performance, and the final curtain call of Altman’s movie. In any other hands, this concluding symbol would have been as gross and heavyhanded as the last shot of Cool hand Luke; but Altman is a wiser sort.

And this splendid little concluding allegory brings to mind another artist-devouring giant maw. Much has been said, for many decades now, about the relentless grinding away of promising young women who choose acting careers, who achieve real stardom with a few brilliant roles, and who then pretty much drop from sight. I do not intend to analyse yet again why any of us before even blinking can name a dozen or so such “whatever happened tos”; but if one is going to offer a note on a Robert Altman film, one is obligated to go out on at least one limb — especially considering onto how many of them Altman himself routinely climbs:

My oldest and dearest friend said that he’d avoided seeing The company so far because he was afraid he’d be “going just to look at Neve Campbell’s eyebrows.” And with a relentless sham culture of surfaces and glamour besetting us wherever we turn, that’s a wise and solid sentiment.

But surely no one would express doubts about going to watch one of Ingrid Bergman’s classic roles for the same reason? You have only to mention Ms Bergman’s name to learn instantly whether you are talking with someone who has seen one of those roles: because for a moment the eyes in front of you will light with recognition, and you will see a little softening, perhaps brief, perhaps longer, in whatever walls of defense your interlocutor has built over the years. For just a moment, Ms Bergman’s eyes glisten right there before you, in the eyes of someone grateful for the reminder of their own best and most open self.

Now, it is a long way from Ms Campbell’s famous Party of five squint to the celebrated eyes that shine in Rick’s Café; yet, though I make no predictions, I can at least express a hope: If, God willing — and it is a huge if — she continues as she has thus far to find ways of avoiding that giant maw, I believe that, unlikely as it might sound now, many decades hence we may watch an early Neve Campbell role side by side with one she committed to film in, say, her seventies, and marvel, just as we do now at Ms Bergman’s, at the soul to which those eyes are the window. If she — and we — can manage it, we’ll all be a little the richer.


* James Thurber, The Thirteen Clocks