As a lover of opera, Messiaen and 20th century music in general, this was a natural choice for me; after wanting it for years I finally got it for Christmas. I finished it after over a week of listening to one of the eight tableaux at a time; as many reviewers have already said, that is probably the best way to listen to it. It's hard to swallow in one big gulp.
You see, everything about this piece is huge. Messiaen spent four years composing and another four orchestrating it and used every trick in his book, from palindrome and Greek rhythms to invented scales to birdsong. It is scored for seven soloists, an orchestra of 119 (7474-4633, three ondes Martenot, strings, and no less than 41 percussion instruments distributed among five players), and a choir of 150. There are sections in the score in which the conductor has to read upwards of 70 staves in which everybody is doing something different. The score itself comes in eight softcover volumes-one for each of the eight tableaux--on oversized paper and tips the scale at a total of just over fifty pounds. If you want a copy of the score, you'll have to fork over from $250 to $350 each for individual volumes and about $2,500 for the whole thing.
(I will say this, however. Although it seems to be every reviewer's favorite subject, the length of four hours is not unusual for opera. Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro", for example, tends to clock in at just over three; Wagner's operas tend to go from three to four and a half hours and Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" lasts for three and a half. Why, the original version of Glass' "Einstein on the Beach" goes for nearly five!)
My point is that, in spite of all of this size, there are many ways in which the opera is almost minimalist, and that is why it is hard to listen to all at once.
You see, it has been common practice since Stravinsky to use repetition in place of traditional melodic development, but Messiaen takes it to the extreme in this piece. Each character has at least two motives; a great deal of the score is made up of the repetition, alteration and superposition of such. Because of this and his quasi-atonal harmonic language, you can be anywhere from five minutes to an hour or two into it and it'll feel as though the music hasn't gone anywhere. This "static" quality is typical of Messiaen's music, but it's very prominent here and makes for a difficult listening.
Once you get into it, however, the opera plays much like a Marcel Proust novel in that it is immensely rewarding and worth every ounce of effort put into it. I would recommend it for any fan of 20th century opera, or, indeed, for any music lover with an open mind.
As far as this particular performance is concerned, it really doesn't get much better. Kent Nagano, one of the better conductors now living, studied the score with the composer before his death and participated in the premiere performance; thus this is about as musically accurate of a recording of this monster as you're going to get. José van Damm is one of the greatest baritones to ever live, and his performance here is no less than phenomenal. Dawn Upshaw's silky, sweet voice is perfect for the role of the angel and she sings with a beautiful rendition of the often difficult French accent. One of the ondistes is none other than Jeanne Loriod, one of Messiaen's in-laws and who has participated on nearly every ondes Martenot-featuring recording of Messiaen's.
The orchestra's tackling of the inhumanly difficult score is no less than stellar, and the recording's engineering is nearly miraculous. It's hard to believe that it's live!
It doesn't get much better than this, folks. You don't even have to be religious; I myself am an athiest. If you love Messiaen, if you love 20th century opera, or if you just love music and are open-minded, this is a well-spent $60.