"My starting point (in writing Saint Francois d'Assise) was inspiration pure and simple, inspiration as powerful and incomprehensible as love." - Olivier Messiaen
After a full day of Messiaen's organ and vocal music at Paris' La Trinite, followed by a performance of his orchestral music in Brussels, I made my way to Amsterdam's Het Muziektheater this past Sunday, where I heard the Netherlands Opera's opening performance of Messiaen's sole opera Saint Francois d'Assise, in a new production by Pierre Audi. It was well worth the lengthy, problematic train trip.
Saint Francois is a monumental work of art, lasting over five and a half hours in performance and written on a scale comparable only to Wagner's late operas, bearing a particular resemblance to Parsifal in its religious devotion. Messiaen dedicated ten years of his life to Saint Francois, and considered it a summation of all of his musical ideas. You can hear in it all of his birdsong, all of his rhythmic and chromatic techniques - as well as some of his most ecstatic crescendos. Saint Francois premiered in 1985 at the Palais Garnier in Paris, and has since been performed at theaters throughout Europe; it will receive it's long-overdue New York premiere in 2009-10, when City Opera will put it on at the Park Avenue Armory.
The Muziektheater utilized a thrust stage, with seating on all sides. The orchestra sat at the rear of the stage, while the front of the stage held a simple set constucted around a huge pile of black crosses, assembled like a crown of thorns. The conductor, Ingo Metzmacher, gave directions to the singers via monitors. I was surprised to see empty seats in the Musiektheater - which only holds 1,600 people, less than half the size of the Met - but was happy for the opportunity to move closer to the center.
Saint Francois tells the story of the life of Saint Francis in a series of eight scenes that chart Francis' gradual development into a state of grace: from the kissing of a leper, to his conversation with the birds, to his receiving the stigmata, the five wounds that mirror those of Jesus' crucifixion. There is minimal onstage action: most of the drama is internal.
There are many extraordinary moments in Saint Francois: the angel playing her cosmic viol, depicted by three ondes martenots; the "Grand Concert of the Birds", which Messiaen composed on 70 staves; a chorus of 150 singing from a columned loft that looked suspiciously like the one at La Trinite, where I heard a chorus sing O Sacrum Convivium on Thursday.
Most astonishing of all is the opera's final scene, where Francis dies and, according to Messiaen's own stage direction, is replaced by by "a blinding, and unbearable light." The chorus moves downstage to sing a final hymn of praise, growing in intensity until it becomes almost excruciatingly loud.
"From sorrow, from weakness, and from shame: He resuscitates Power, Glory and Joy!!!"
The role of Saint Francis was sung by American Rod Gilfry, who delivered a heroic performance of the most demanding role in the entire baritone repertoire, despite a respiratory infection. Soprano Camilla Trilling and tenor Hubert Delamboye were strong and convincing as the Angel and Leper, respectively. Other cast members included Hank Neven (Fr. Leon), Tom Randle (Fr. Masse), Donald Kaasch (Fr. Elias) and Armand Arapian (Fr. Bernard).
The real star, though, was the Netherlands Opera Orchestra, which had to play arguably the most complex and difficult score in all of opera. To my ears, they sounded as polished and professional as any opera orchestra I've heard, with no small thanks due to Metzmacher, who not only managed to keep the wheels on, but delivered a performance of formidable precision and power. During the curtain calls, the entire audience stood once Metzmacher arrived on stage, rightfully taking his bows from among the orchestra players. Some smart American orchestra manager would do well to snap this guy up. Now.
I can't imagine a more fitting end to a most remarkable musical journey. (More pics after the jump.)