TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 27 May 2013
We have just seen a Francis enthroned in the chair of Peter. Pope Francis the First proclaims his own inspiration to come from Francis of Assisi, they are both unique and so is Messiaen's great celebration of the saint, but it hardly gets a performance, and when it does (as in London recently) hardly anyone attends. Meantime Verdi and Wagner, neither of whom ever goes short of an audience, are being doubly feted simply for having been born, like much of humanity, in a year ending with the digits 13. Messiaen's masterpiece must be frightening people off I suppose; but if so let me say `Be not afraid.' This superb production ought to save a few musical souls, as surely as Frère Leon was redeemed from his early timidity, crying repeatedly `J'ai peur de la route.'
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. However I for one have to suspend so much disbelief on being fed with so much Catholic mysticism that I am not looking for plausibility in minor respects. The orchestra and chorus are actually within camera range, but all one can really see is a distant back view of the conductor, and that suits me fine.
One touch of fresh thinking, very successful so far as I'm concerned, is the so-called sermon to the birds. This is really more a kind of lecture to the birds, telling them about themselves. What this production does is make it into a class on ornithology given to a stageful of children. These act their part very well, and the birdsongs are of course entrusted to the composer's practised orchestration, represented as he usually represents them through a lifetime of fascination with the musicians that he believes the finest of all and the most in direct contact with the deity. This being a dvd, the sound has to come through my B-speakers, but I have no complaints with it. It is clear, it is vivid, and it is typical Messiaen. It is even extra-typical in one respect, in having no fewer than three ondes martenot, their players given individual recognition in the liner. These queer contraptions would hardly fit in Wagner, but this is Messiaen and he understands them.
The vocalists cover themselves with distinction, and I include the chorus, who have a lot to do in the final tableau and have to turn out a super-Handelian climax at the very end. There is no problem with tone quality anywhere that I noticed. All the soloists are excellent, but of course everything depends on Francis and the angel. Gilfry is superb, and even his French sounds good to me. Camilla Tilling has the solitary female role, and she brings it off with aplomb, giving a new meaning to the cliché `pure as angels'. The work as a whole calls for a surprising amount of acting, but in the absence of duels, triumphal marches, love scenes and whatnot the acting is largely a matter of facial expression seen in closeup, and that devolves more or less entirely on Gilfry. He may not look anyone's idea of St Francis, but he does really quite well without being any obvious candidate for an acting Oscar or a BAFTA award.
This is the story of the progress of a soul towards closer union with God, in the fashion so beloved of mediaeval ideas of the religious life. To me the miracles, angels and such like are fairy tales and the mysticism is fantasy and make-believe. However from anything that I have read about Olivier Messiaen this was very much not his outlook and he seems to have swallowed the whole spiritual repast like some mind-altering meal that did not need drugs or substances. In addition he is a great composer, if you can take him at all, and I own up to being a bit of a Messiaen-junkie myself. I am perfectly ready to enter into his world so far as I can, and I do not find the `plot'of this drama in any way static but on the contrary deeply involving. As well as the music Messiaen wrote the libretto, but the music is the thing here. I suppose that its failure to draw the public so far is down to some combination of M's general musical style together with the overly repeated canard about supposed lack of `action' or static scenes. It does not take much familiarity to dispel the latter view although the work must be as long as Goetterdaemmerung, and it could even be that this, of all M's compositions, may actually win over some music lovers who have yet to respond to, say, Turangalila or the Eclairs de l'Au-dela.
There are a few little extras on the first disc. The cast-list and the heads of the musical numbers just duplicate the liner, and the spoken summary is very little different. However there are some interesting short interviews, in English, Dutch and German, including a talk with the children. I recommend this before you start the actual opera. It might put you in the right mood.
(English subtitles are available).