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Messiaen: St François D'Assise [DVD]  
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Messiaen's breathtakingly intense opera on the life of St Francis of Assisi stars Rod Gilfry as the charismatic visionary, beguiled by the glory of creation, yet fearful of both its imperfections and its transience. Pierre Audi's thoroughly engaging production for The Netherlands Opera brings out the naive imagery, the grandeur, and above all the vast tenderness of the resplendent score, revealed as a grandiose ritual with the meaning and purpose of life as its central theme. But the real drama of the work takes place in the orchestra. Elevated to stupendous heights by the sublimely inspired Ingo Metzmacher, The Hague Philharmonic and the Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera combine forces with a brilliant cast to produce the finest possible musical pilgrimage.
"The orchestra, drilled to absolute perfection, played as if their lives depended on it, while the choral singing was superb in its intensity. The cast tellingly emphasised the physicality as well as the spirituality of Messiaen's vision...A stupendous evening, and one of the great operatic achievements of recent years." (The Guardian)
"Rod Gilfrey radiates empathy in his portrayal of the exceptionally demanding title role. Ingo Metzmacher's conducting is simply stunning, with marvellous pacing to keep the music flowing across the vast timescale, yet ensuring space and stillness when needed." (BBC Music Magazine)
"Ingo Metzmacher... inspires his cohorts to greater feats of stamina and virtuosity than any conductor before him in the opera." (Gramophone)
"The soloists are generally excellent with especially fine singing from Rod Gilfry as François, Camilla Tilling as the Angel and Tom Randle as Elie. The title role is a huge sing with the character on stage almost all of the time, and needing to express emotions ranging from quiet dignity through to overwhelming ecstasy on hearing the Angel's singing; and then ultimately to physical and emotional identification with Christ's suffering. Gilfry sustained all of this manfully, showing no sign of vocal fatigue at any point even at the conclusion." (Seen and Heard International)
CastCamilla Tilling (The Angel)Rod Gilfry (Saint François)Hubert Delamboye (The Leper)Henk Neven (Frère Léon)Tom Randle (Frère Massée)Donald Kaasch (Frère Élie)
Hague Philharmonic Orchestra; Ingo MetzmacherStage Director: Pierre Audi
Catalogue Number: OA1007DDate of Performance: 2008Running Time: 275 minutesSound: 5.0 DTS Surround; PCM StereoAspect Ratio: 16:9 AnamorphicSubtitles: EN, FR, DE, ES, IT, NLLabel: Opus Arte
'The orchestra, drilled to absolute perfection, played as if their lives depended on it, while the choral singing was superb in its intensity. The cast tellingly emphasised the physicality as well as the spirituality of Messiaen's vision. Heartthrob baritone Rod Gilfry played Francis as a charismatic visionary beguiled by the glory of creation, yet fearful of both its imperfections and its transience. The Angel, who teases, consoles and ultimately guides him was sensually sung by Mozart diva Heidi Grant-Murphy. A stupendous evening, and one of the great operatic achievements of recent years.' --The Guardian
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Top Customer Reviews
Apart from its length, it is hardly surprising that is has rarely been performed in the 25 years since Messiaen wrote it, given the requirements of an orchestra of over 100 (including 3 ondes martenots) and a large choir (which again in Wagnerian style doesn't actually have a lot to do, but still has to be there). The title role is extremely demanding as he is rarely off stage at any time in the whole work. The action, if such it can be called, is divided into eight tableaux and deals with some of the key points in the life, and ultimately the death of the eponymous saint, who appealed to the composer both theologically and ornithologically, giving him the chance to indulge in some 40 minutes of bird song as the saint preaches his famous sermon to those species.
I have wanted to see this opera since Messiaen wrote it, but it is not often performed, and as far as I know has previously only been available in sound recordings. And as with any opera, you need to see as well as hear it to get full value from it. I was going to watch it over two or three evenings an Act at a time, but in the end I watched it straight through with only such interval as you would get in the Opera House. Four and a half hours is a large investment of time, but one which is repaid with interest. It was an absorbing experience.
We are hugely indebted to Netherlands Opera for mounting this stunning production, and to Arthaus for releasing it on DVD. The production is imaginative, the singing excellent, indeed I could run out of superlatives in describing it. You must see it for yourself.
I took some time to decide to pay more for a video of this work and it was worth the money. To see the action and read the subtitles added immensely to my understanding of the piece. My advice, if you are torn between and audio CD and a DVD of this piece, is always to buy the video.
So, for example, in "Francis preaches to the Birds", a conversation between Francis and a friar which is so dull in audio is enlivened when, in DVD, it becomes a group teaching lesson before a class of young children; and then the children double as birds later in the scene. In "The Stigmata" all I heard in audio was banging and howling. On DVD this became a most powerful musical Theophany and I was reduced to tears.
Video presents it own problems, however. These scenes are actually tableaux and there is very little action in them. This is an enormous challenge, especially to Rod Gilfry (Francis) who often has to stand still and convey all sorts of emotions. (Paradoxically, when Francis is most still (at his death), Rod Gilfry walks off stage). Because this is video rather than live on stage we are treated to many close-ups of Rod Gilfry's face which is in peak condition and does not portray a man used to fasting and self-denial.
Yes, this is definitely worth the money and this format greatly enhances understanding. However, I would not want to sit through an entire performance. I chose, instead, to watch one tableau at a time. It took some days to watch the entire opera but at least I came fresh to each new tableau.
I believe that there is at least one fine cd version of Saint Francois, but it's important to see as well as hear this work. The staging is my idea of excellent, not quite minimalist but austere in keeping with its theme. Lighting is monochrome to start with, colour later adding warmth when the angel plays her solo to the overwhelmed and nearly unconscious Francis, then during the famous `sermon' to the birds and again during the magnificent triumphal finale. The monastic robes of the Friars Minor are suitably rough looking, and the angel's finery is eye-catching without being out of keeping. The odd man out in this respect is the leper, but he has to be strongly characterised, so I have no problem with his stylised leper's rags. No real attempt is made to have the various actors `look their part'. Rod Gilfry in the title role in particular is a fine rugged Califorrnian with Hollywood looks.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is opera on the grand if not epic scale and at about 41/2 hours needs some guidance to watch. Here is a tip. Read morePublished 6 months ago by Pdon
Excellent version from Messiaen unique opera. Awasome cast with great performers. The direction for the stage is clever and original. I'd recommend it for all classical music fans.Published on 3 May 2011 by Jordi