Archive for May, 2024

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