PROM 70: Olivier Messiaen's St. Francis of Assisi

The Netherlands Opera/Ingo Metzmacher

Royal Albert Hall, 9 September 20084.5 stars

Rod Gilfry (photo: Art Streiber)With over four hours of music, and a running time including intervals usually somewhere in the region of six hours, Messiaen's only opera requires a certain degree of commitment in its listeners. Especially, of course, when it is included in a large festival of music as the 77th event, and on a Sunday moreover. Compounding things is the fact that this opera eschews conventional dramatic narrative (despite the juicy potential of Francis' life) in favour of a series of eight generally unconnected tableaux that seek to convey aspects of Francis' character, and indeed the Christian character itself, such as grace, equanimity, appreciation of divine creation, and empathy. Messiaen's musical style, repetitive and block-formed as it was, simply did not lend itself to the overarching conventional dramatic framework of exposition, development, conflict, and dénouement. Thus as with Philip Glass' Satyagraha, a near contemporary opera of St. Francis of Assisi, simple universal truths are the matter of each scene. Each composer sought to illuminate anew these truths through the force of their music.

The crucial difference between these outwardly similar works however is that St. Francis is full of music of utter and effortless power. Messiaen's music either creates its own drama in place of a narrative, or convinces its listeners through sheer force of poetry of the insignificance of narrative. It is by turns sumptuous, ornamental and monumental; it often infuses the piece with a sort of meditative majesty. Reminiscent of much of his earlier scores, Messiaen again and again achieves moments of quieting grandeur and astonishing beauty through the admixture of birdsong, chromaticised plainsong, Hindu rhythms, and perfumed polymodality. His ear for extraordinary colour is evident throughout. The most memorable sounds are heard in the combination of isolated contrabassoon and tuba for their recurrent snorts, his joining of piccolo, glockenspiel and xylophone for the birdsong motif attached to the Angel, and his creative use of the three ondes martenot, instruments which often get buried in his ornate, fluorescent scores, as the vehicles for distorted effects and for chirping birdsong.

Messiaen unites his score by employing a number of leitmotifs for each main character. These motifs, powerful, expressive and sparkling without exception, remain largely static throughout, unlike those of the Wagnerian model. Nevertheless tedium remains at bay as a result of the internal force of each figure: the descending high wind and brass motif of Francis, the birdcall of the Angel, the tense string glissandi and oboe wails of Francis, and the bolshy brass and low strings of Brother Elias are all typically powerful examples. The overwhelming variety of motifs employed, with the Angel for example having six associated themes, also counteracts any feeling of monotony such a long, static work might encourage. Each scene moreover feels well put together and of optimum length, with the archetypal framework and personae of the work lending the movement of each a sort of inevitability in keeping with both the musical and dramatic material.

The scenes each contain a much less dialectical form of Socratic dialogue. More often than not a protagonist (usually either the Angel or Francis) will converse with for example some of the Brothers, asking them questions about themselves, or observing how they act or react in certain situations. The protagonist eventually states rather than shows (though their own clear contentment is evidence of a sort of the efficacy of their recommendations) the way one should act to accord with God's expectations, and thus gain peace. Scene three, where a Leper is advised by Francis to endure and accept his suffering with grace, then as a result of his assent is cleansed of his physical and mental scars and gains enlightenment, is an exemplum. Narrative drama is not totally absent though- the last two scenes, the Stigmata and Death scenes, are highly dramatic- but in the main it is left up to the music, to the performers, and to the staging to imbue the spectacle with a degree of lasting intrigue.

In a Royal Albert Hall that was at best 30 – 40% full, the Hague Philharmonic, the Chorus of Netherlands Opera, the soloists, and their conductor Ingo Metzmacher did an astonishing job at overcoming, or rather making a virtue of, the essentially epic stillness of the opera. It was a concert performance that made room for touches of staging, some subtle and some explicit, that vastly enriched the telling. Singers were given room at the front of the stage where they acted out the fundamental dramatic details of each scenario, for example the movements of entering and exiting the stage during conversation, gestures to each other, and physical actions like losing consciousness. Props were kept to a minimum, with seats and a bench at the end meaning that movement was given an added dimension. Costumes were simple and humble in keeping with the scenario. Astute use of lighting and space further enhanced the spectacle; the Angel's appearance raised above the stage at the organ in the final scene, where s/he is apparently singing to Francis from heaven, was effective for instance. Two of the three ondes martenots placement in corner balcony boxes to the front of each side of the stage was also clever, especially in scene six where each responds with the correct song when Francis is naming birds for example, but their isolation in space meant that their already unique sounds were often too prominent and exposed within the ensemble. 

The cast of solo singers performed to a very high standard, with each of the Brothers providing elegant support for the main players. The standout amongst these was the quietly authoritative Armand Arapian as Brother Bernard, and the haughty, self-important Donald Kaasch as Brother Elias, the closest thing to a villain in the piece. Rod Gilfry was a fairly strong Saint. He acted well, immersing himself in the lessons of each scene before conveying with a measure of conviction the transfiguration of the final pages. His singing relied on beauty of tone and a composed, solemn manner of phrasing over power of projection and flexible expression, but he was generally audible above the large orchestra behind him, and his performance remained focused right to the end. Gilfry provided a quiet but strong presence at the heart of the work. He could not help, however, being upstaged by Heidi Grant Murphy's Angel. This was an assumption of the highest order; in a high-lying, extremely taxing role that requires elevated technique as much as it does a sort of transcendent bearing Murphy bewitched the Hall with an astonishing display of talent. Her intonation, throughout her broad range, was faultless, and she displayed a staggering degree of control of dynamics even in the highest registers. Her diminuendos at the end of phrases were mesmerising; at these moments it was only possible to hear her, and it was if she had actually taken on the numinous aspect of her character.

Ingo MetzmacherMatching the generally high level of achievement of the soloists were the 200-strong cast of orchestra and chorus. The latter, used as only barely audible ornament as much as they are as sublime harbingers of divine messages, were in voice throughout, with barely an exposed entry or a slippage of tuning all night. The orchestra likewise maintained a very high standard through the lengthy performance. The brass were forthright, the strings alternately glassy and bold, and the winds chirpy and alert. Special credit should go to the ten percussionists, who in the main tackled the arduous task of continually giving voice to all the different strains of birdsong with inexhaustible energy and passion. The instrumentalists had their own Angel though, and his name was Ingo Metzmacher, their conductor. Showing bewildering, undimmed stamina, Metzmacher brought a collective sense of shared purpose to the performance that was the decisive factor in its success. Again and again he would catch even the slightest deviation of dynamics or pace in the ensemble and put it right. He was the catalyst for the force and cogency of every group entry, and for the precise impact of each phrase ending, and point of climax. Few would have been able to keep such a large and variegated group in close check for even ten minutes, let alone over four hours, but Metzmacher comfortably managed the task of not only gracefully regulating the rise and falls of each theme and supporting passage, but also consistently enhancing the many repeats with a feeling of new vigour. The conductor created a sort of grandeur of inevitability in the performance that was utterly in keeping with the subject matter.

High points were many. The final two scenes, with their dark, swirling beginning and light-infused (the lights of the hall were brightened to their highest point as the libretto directs) conclusion where the final triumphant chord was earth shattering, despite a suggestion of stamina being finally exhausted in its initial seconds (Metzmacher single-handedly righted this), provided a monumental climax. Each scene though had its own internal magic. To my mind in fact it was only the sixth scene, the Sermon to the Birds, that palled slightly, despite the energetic playing of the percussionists (it was a touch too fatuous, in material and music, for my liking).

But in the end the heart of this performance, and the work itself, has to lie in the sixth scene. There Messiaen matches his most penetrating poetry (he wrote the libretto himself) to his most beguiling music to create the potential for a truly transcendent few minutes (skilfully taken by all involved). To demonstrate that 'music carries us to God in default of truth', he has the Angel (in reality the orchestra led by one of the ondes) play the most lustrous, affecting music he ever wrote. Prefaced by the appeal to 'listen to this music that suspends life from the ladders of heaven, listen to the music of the unseen…', the strings start playing glassy harmonics that in this performance congealed together to create a glorious carpet of sound. The ondes martenot then enters with a series of long, luxurious, otherworldly lines that prove the apotheosis of Messiaen as composer. The passage marries his transcendent qualities to his desire for earthly address as none before had managed. Indeed it is a fitting focal point for an opera whose central injunction, as much as spurring its audience towards a rational contemplation of Christian values, is surely that we should listen above all else, just listen, if we are to find our own version of peace. This idea that in the natural and artificial sounds around us a certain truth of creation might lie ultimately places this very Christian work in a very broad alliance with belief-systems of all and every nature. This outwardly simple but powerfully expressed insight, in the end, suffuses the work with a kind of tranquillity and transcendence that is unique to opera.  

By Stephen Graham