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Prom 70, Messiaen, Saint François d’Assise : Soloists, Chorus of the Netherlands Opera, The Hague Philharmonic Orchestra/Ingo Metzmacher. Royal Albert Hall, 7.9. 2008 (CC)

Rod Gilfry (baritone) St Francis
Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano) Angel
Hubert Dela
mboye (tenor) Leper
Henk Neven (baritone) Brother Leo
Charles Workman (tenor) Brother Masseo
Donald Kaasch (tenor) Brother Elias
Armand Arapian (baritone) Brother Bernard
Jan Willem Baljet (baritone) Brother Sylvester
André Morsch (baritone) Brother Rufus

Olivier Messiaen’s magnum opus, here receiving its Proms premiere, decidedly needs to be experienced complete. Back in the eighties, Ozawa conducted a series of tableaux at the RFH, and made a tremendous impression, but the effect of St Francis when heard in entirety is overwhelming. Interesting that I still remember the final pages of Ozawa’s performance (it looked like he was going to take off in the blaze of light that is the final chord), and recall it as being overall rather more overt
ly emotional than Metzmacher’s.

Still, one needs to bear in mind that the overall nature of the opera is, after all, static. The work is a succesion of eight scenes (“Tableaux”) divided into three acts which together last over four hours (not including intervals). This performance began at 4pm and ended at 9.40pm, with two intervals (one of 20 minutes, one of 40). The vast procession of scenes, like so many frescoes in sound, is awe-inspiring; not to mention demanding on the performers. The Hague Philharmonic played in exemplary fashion throughout. Messiaen requires that concentration is never allowed to flag, and the achievement of this was probably the orchestra’s finest contribution.

The choice of subject seems perfect for Messiaen—not least because of the element of birdsong that is so intrinsic to the Franciscan legend. Messiaen also refreshes plainsong by adding his own piquant harmonies. Now it is not only Parsifal, it seems, that is a religious festival in the theatre.

The ‘action’ takes place in the thirteenth century. Most of this ‘action’ is contemplative in nature (remember that ‘contemplation’ is in itself an action) but episodes in St Francis’ life are depicted: the encounter with the leper (not only significant for the healing, but also for St Francis’ overcoming of his own lepraphobia); the several encounters with the angel; the Sermon to the Birds; the Stigmata; and finally, St Francis’ own death. Each character is assigned various themes and bird song, with the Angel and St Francis having the lion’s share of associated material (the other characters are limited to one theme and one birdsong each). The closest we come to “action” in the traditional sense is probably the brief exchange between Brothers Leo, Bernard and Masseo before the Sermon to the Birds, and presumably this is there to set the Sermon itself into even higher relief.

As far as staging is concerned, on paper at least,i t is arguable that there could be a parallel here between St Francis and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Yet, whenever Bluebeard appears in the concert hall, there seems to be no associated desire to see it staged, no awareness of lack; with St Francis, despite its slow-moving nature, one felt that a stage (particularly colour on the stage) would add an extra, and necessary, dimension. Here, we had the blaze of white light at the end, plus sundry lighting effects along the way, none of which were particularly awe-inspiring.

What was awe-inspiring though, was the stamina of the singers, and Messiaen’s own compositional mastery. The composer’s palette by this time (1973-83) was so highly developed that one could only sit and marvel at the complete rightness, and consistency, of the scoring. He makes demands on players and singers, to be sure, but none are absolutely unreasonable, as this performance proved. Orchestral highpoints included the two Concerts of Birds in Act II, where clearly detailed rehearsal had paid off (remember the opera had formed part of this year’s Holland Festival, reviewed by Bill Kenny here on MusicWeb and staged by Pierre Audi—who controversially, in my view, had Francis preach to schoolchildren, not birds. I see the parallel, but birds, with all their religious significance, are surely indispensible here!)

The brave man taking on the title role was Rod Gilfry. Immediately, in the opening scene with Brother Leo (a meditation on what constitutes joy), Gilfry asserted his stage presence and his equally confident, large voice, a superb instrument that is rounded in all registers. It was only in Act 2, in fact, during his Sermon to the Birds (the opera’s Sixth Scene) that tiredness seemed in evidence (although the voice righted itself for the final act – perhaps the hour interval here helped!). His static prayer that opens Scene Five (“The Angel-Musician”) was gorgeous, the perfect way to introduce the Angel into the scene. The eighth, final scene (“Death and the New Life”) was Gilfry’s finest moment.

In fact, as impressive as Gilfry was, the Angel, American soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, who sang with impeccably pure, white-toned beauty. When Murphy sang her section “God dazzles us by excess of Truth”, Messiaen’s tissue-delicate accompaniment caused a collectively held breath from the audience; her response to the death scene of Francis (particularly the line, “’Tis he, ‘tis the leper thou hast embraced!”) was exceptionally beautiful.

Armand Arapian took the part of Brother Bernard. His voice was very warm, but there was unnecessary air around the notes. Henk Neven was Brother Leo, an important role in that it plays an indispensible part in Scene One and also provides the intensely sad reaction to Francis’ death in Scene Eight, was impressively delivered in the most lovely fashion. Of the smaller roles, too, special mention must be made of tenor Hubert Delamboye’s heartfelt assumption of the part of the Leper (and, by the way, how astonishingly radiant is Messiaen’s accompaniment to the actual healing itself!). The chorus of the Netherlands Opera was simply stunning. Apart from the set-pieces, there is frequent use of a wordless choir as part of Messiaen’s tonal armoury. Whatever was demanded of them, be it subtle, hypnotic line-spinning or ecstatic outcry, they provided it in spades.

Bill Kenny ended his review with the optimistic statement that, “Early booking would be both advisable and worthwhile” for this Proms performance, implying an understandable stance that one would have to be mad to miss this. A position I would have had to concur with at the time—so where was everybody? The gallery and circle was all but deserted, there was ample space in the amphitheatre for people to sleep (they did), not to mention whopping great gaps in the stalls. A wet and overcast Sunday, true, might not be the ideal impetus for a trek into town, but one has to weep when one sees a limp wristed British response such as this. And that the performance fell on a Sunday is no excuse either. Look at how many people turned up to Lang Lang and compare and contrast the musical pay-off too. Perhaps someone could issue this performance on disc? I for one would love to hear it again, and maybe then, thousands of people could at least hear what they missed.

Colin Clarke

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