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S & H International Opera Review

MESSIAEN: SAINT FRANCOIS D'ASSISE, San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 1 Oct 2002 (HS)


Everything about Olivier Messiaen's only opera is on an epic scale. The conductor's score comes in eight volumes and weighs 25 pounds. The oversized orchestra includes all the regular instruments plus a contrabass clarinet, a piccolo trumpet, extra tubas, a contrabass bassoon, xylophones, marimbas and xylorimbas, not to mention three ondes martenots, the early electronic instruments the composer used so often. The oversized chorus is divided into 10 parts. The opera takes five hours to perform, during which times it contains a virtual summation of everything that made Messiaen one of the true original musical voices of the 20th century.

First performed in Paris in 1983 and revived in Salzburg in 1992, the year of Messiaen's death, no opera company in the United States had mounted a full production until Pamela Rosenberg made it a priority when she took over directorship of the company in 2001. It is the Big Project for the company this season, the first important statement in the Rosenberg Era.

Despite a few minor bumps in the road, "Saint Francois d'Assise" is a triumph. Heard in its second performance, it dazzles musically and the staging scores repeatedly with one coup de theatre after another.

Typically for Messiaen, there is nothing ordinary about this work. There is no plot to speak of. Instead we get a series of eight scenes in which Messiaen, a devout Catholic whose great works always have a religious subtext, depicts the progress of God's grace in the soul of the 13th-century monk who became the beloved Saint Francis. The music makes spectacular use of bird song, not so much to imitate the actual sound of birds, although that occurs, too, but as musical material to be fleshed out with rich harmonic colors. With no arias, ensembles or musical interludes, Messiaen employs such operatic techniques as leitmotifs, which change like Wagner's as the characters develop, and a chorus that responds to (and sometimes leads) the protagonists.

Much of the time, Messiaen writes a long, sustained vocal line, unaccompanied or with minimal accompaniment, interspersed with eruptions from the orchestra. This allows us to hear the words, most of which he wrote himself, but they're not nearly as interesting as what happens in the music.

Though Messiaen's harmonic language does not lead from one chord to another as most non-serial European music does, he creates a colorful musical palette capable of reflecting profound emotions and moments of religious rapture. The music moves slowly, but with lots of notes, which creates a strange passage of time. With shifting rhythms, Messiaen creates the impression that times suspends itself.

A listener can get swept up in this vivid swirl, especially when the San Francisco Opera orchestra plays it as brilliantly as it does under music director Donald Runnicles, conducting the work for the first time. If some of the complex meters came off a tad ragged, most of it rose from the pit in a wash of spectacular sound.

As the title character, veteran baritone Willard White deployed a rich voice that traveled easily from top to bottom of the range and noble stage presence to create a flesh-and-blood Francis, one who can show humility and fear as well as the power to overcome them. He also showed tremendous stamina. Francis is central to seven of the eight scenes, and he seemed as strong at the finish as he was at the start.

The other expansive role is The Angel, who appears in five scenes and motivates virtually everything that resembles a story. Laura Aikin, who has sung extensively at the Vienna State Opera, Metropolitan Opera and Chicago Lyric Opera, made her house debut singing exactly the gorgeous sounds that Messiaen must have wanted. He once wrote that his model vocally for the role was Pamina in Mozart's "Magic Flute." She also looked fine in a bright blue second skin, a single wing protruding from one shoulder blade.

Chris Merritt, who has slimmed down considerably since he last sang here in San Francisco in 1997 as Arnold in Rossini's "Guillaume Tell," displayed a secure tenor as The Leper in his pivotal scene. In it, Francis overcomes his own fear and revulsion to embrace and kiss the diseased man, and in doing so cure him. The music for that scene, often scored for growling contrabass instruments, creates exactly the right frightening mood.

Like the leper scene, some of the scenes enact famous moments from Francis's life, including his sermon to the birds, his "Canticle of the Sun" and suffering the stigmata. Others reflect his inner struggle, such as the opening tableau in which Francis and Brother Leo (Johannes Martin Kränzle) confront their fear of death and suffering, a pivotal scene in which the angel uses music to lead Francis closer to God, and the final scene of his death.

Hans Dieter Schaal designed the semi-abstract sets, which center on a long S-shaped path that rises nearly three meters to the rear of the stage. It's on a turntable, and when it rotates 180 degrees it reveals Francis' small cell. Tall grid-like structures flank the stage's interior, housing some of the chorus. Elevated at stage level on one side of the pit are the three ondes martenot players, and on the other side are the mallet instruments. Although the stylized production may have been meant to focus attention on the music, its unrelenting grey color palette puts it at odds with Messiaen's rainbow-vivid music.

That said, it has its moments, especially with the angel. In her blue outfit, Aikin moves like a dancer. We first see her at the end of the second scene in one of the side towers, from which she hovers over the end of the scene, singing sweetly. In the next scene, it's the angel who strides through the scene and removes the window separating Francis and the leper. A white overlay about a foot deep fits over the S-shaped path, representing snow in one scene and, in one of the production's most magical moments, rises on wires to become a sort of cloud/roof over Francis. Ecstatic music rises from the pit as the angel plays the wires like a harp. At the end of the scene, a scrim drops in front of the stage with medieval music notation gradually appearing to be writing itself on it.

Another spectacular scene is the sermon to the birds. Messiaen incorporates birdcalls into much of his music, but he outdid himself in the music for this scene. In this staging, a huge black disc drops down to cover half the stage. A white dove moves around on it, revealing phrases from his sermon in medieval script (in both French and English).

Director Nicolas Berger drew distinctive characters of the various monks (sung primarily by Gran Wilson, Gabor Andrasy and Jay Hunter Morris) and highlighted the personal interactions between Francis and the other characters, especially the angel. There were also a few German strangenesses, such as clothing the chorus in fedoras and trench coats, their heads encased in black-mesh masks. But this is not a piece that succeeds or fails on storytelling or dramatic acting. It's the music that does the heavy lifting. At its finest, and this production created many ecstatic moments, that does the trick splendidly.

Harvey Steiman

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