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Holland Festival 2008, Messiaen and Andriessen :  De Nederlandse Opera visits Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, Het Muziektheater and Koninklijk Theater Carré, Amsterdam, 18 /19.6.2008 (BK)

Saint François d'Assise - Set

Messiaen's only opera Saint François d' Assise and La Commedia, a new work by the Dutch minimalist master Louis Andriessen, brought De Nederlandse Opera's season (and the company's contribution to this year's Holland Festival) to a powerful conclusion with  visions of both heaven and hell.

The Innocent Ear - Part One: Heaven

Saint François  is a truly epic work. Scored for a vast orchestra requiring nine percussion players and three ondes martenot, together with a chorus of 100 voices and nine soloists, the opera  runs for six hours including intervals. The three act, eight scene plot shows François teaching his brother monks, healing  a leper, encountering  an angel and then preaching to the birds: until finally, he acquires Christ's stigmata and dies. The libretto, the composer's own, took  almost eight years to complete  and is an extended meditation on the saint's spiritual progress rather than a drama. Given this focus, a  certain degree of sympathy from the audience is required for its success and there's a further  problem facing any director brave enough to tackle the work: what to do when so very little happens but when celestial radiance - or the idea of it - needs constant representation.

Pierre Audi's solution, with sets and lighting by Jean Kalman and costumes by Angelo Figus is a simple yet elegant tour de force. He puts th
e orchestra on the stage and surrounds it with sturdy scaffolding,  strong enough to support the entire chorus from time to time. The plot plays itself out on an apron over the  unused pit using only a minimum of props; a pile of wooden crosses and a skeletal representation of monastic cells in the first act,  other larger rough hewn crosses in the second and third, some symbolic trees and a walkway running through the middle of the orchestra out to the back of the stage. High above, the ceiling becomes the sky or a  cathedral dome by turns. These settings, the lighting plot and the costumes are all immensely colourful, perfectly fitted to the composer's well known synaesthesia and his  personal love of the brighter hues.

Act III, Scene 7 - St. François receives the stigmata

A constant directorial risk in this opera is to turn Messiaen's heartfelt religious conviction into something baser; crude and sentimental religiosity rather than genuine spiritual expressiveness. But Audi and his team steer an unerring course towards the core of Messiaen's intentions, treating the text with discernible reverence while also sustaining the audience's interest. The production works very well most of the time, with only one small lapse perhaps, in  the long and difficult  scene in which St. François offers his sermon to the birds. Here, Audi has Brother Elie hand out wooden toy birds to a group of children,  dressed like the monks in habits resembling brightly coloured bathrobes. As François preaches his sermon,  Brother Elie writes the bird's names and notates their songs on the trees with a marker pen and teaches the children about the message they are hearing. If symbolic innocent acceptance of the gospel is intended here,  better perhaps to have Elie sitting among the children on the ground: no magic markers preferred.

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. Camilla Tilling too, as the 'angel unawares' in Act I, Scene 4 and then in Scene 5 where she appears in full radiance to play celestial music to François, sang with exceptional beauty of tone while conveying both authority and perhaps the most difficult acting requirement of all, rhapsodic virtue. Hers was a magnificent performance by any standards.

In addition to the exceptional chorus, De Nederlandse Opera's own, wh
ich fulfills a number of roles in the plot including acting as the voice of Christ, much of the drama missing from the stage representation is provided by the orchestra: often by means of  the score's leitmotiven for death, solemnity, grace and joy as well as the imitation of birdsong, central to the composer's output in general but particularly necessary in this opera. Under Ingo Metzmacher's direction, the Residentie Orkest of The Hague, augmented with a large battery of mallet instruments and the three ondes played by Nathalie Forget, Valérie Hartmann-Clavérie and Bruno Perrault, produced some truly celestial, not to say cataclysmic sounds. To my innocent ear at least - this was my first experience of this opera - there were no noticeable lapses in ensemble or tuning and the entire performance added up to one of the most memorable nights of opera that I have heard in many years. The Victorian English writer, the Reverend Sydney Smith, said that heaven would be  'Eating paté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.' Had he been able to hear this  Saint François, he might easily have changed his mind.

A concert performance of the production can be heard at the BBC Proms on Sunday 7th September at 4pm and will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3. Early booking would be both advisable and worthwhile.

The Innocent Ear - Part Two: Hell and Purgatory


The set for  Louis Andriessen's La Commedia

Scaffolding was clearly a feature of DNO's output this year, because more of it was used for  La Commedia at the Koninklijk Theater Carré.  Louis Andriessen's 'Film Opera  in Five Parts' is staged by the film director Hal Hartley ('Flirt', 'The Book of Life',  'No Such Thing' etc) whose latest collaboration with the composer  - there have been several others - is a work lasting almost two hours without interruption. In essence, it's a condensation of Dante Alighieri's three volume Divine Comedy which describes the poet's journey from Hell to Heaven accompanied first by the poet Virgil and then by Beatrice.

Except that it isn't - or not quite, anyhow. For his updating of  Dante's epic, Andriessen  has tacked on settings of texts from the Dutch poet Vondel, from the Old Testament and a Dutch folk song while being influenced by other textual sources when writing the music. The result is an uneasy confluence of two sets of stories, one comprising Dante's original characters in modern guise and another about a music ensemble called either 'The Guild' or 'The Terrifying Orchestra of the 21st Century.' This idea is  based simultaneously on Dante's devils and a music group that Andriessen has sometimes threatened to create to perform music that 'no normal orchestra would play.' In La Commedia, The Guild plays on  the streets of modern Amsterdam and is often in trouble with the police. Two 'social activist' girls called Maria and Lucia also come to the city in the filmed story to hand out pamphlets during a visit by a visiting dignitary (Beatrice, sung by soprano Ciaron McFadden),  while Dante is seen as an Italian television news journalist  reporting  the celebrity's visit. He  is confusingly shown as female (and sung by mezzo Cristina Zavalloni) while  Lucifer (played and sung by the Dutch actor Jeroen Willems) is meant to be 'an angry and resentful businessman with frustrated political ambitions. '

Hal Hartley says in his programme notes that, 'For the evening', the theatre is Purgatory,'  where we find the combined ASKO/Schoenberg Ensembles  and Synergy Vocals conducted by Reinhold de Leeuw,  while Purgatory's workers  prepare souls for admission to Paradise. 'Like any self-respecting corporate body,' he adds, 'Purgatory has.. video screens to keep an eye of Human Folly. Their current main concern is with two days in Amsterdam.' 

The plot runs like this. The Guild play their music on the streets, collect their money and go to a bar called  'The Ship of Fools' where Lucifer watches them. After Lucia is seduced by the groups'  horn player she is taken to the bar where everyone present gets drunk and a fight breaks out. Next morning, Lucia and the band wake up on a beach having been followed there by Maria. Arguments follow and Lucia and Maria fight.

In the next episodes, the Guild goes to work once again but one member gets into a fight with the police and they are all arrested. Lucifer pays their fines and they are released while Maria watches. Lucifer then outlines his plans to overthrow heaven to the band and later Beatrice arrives at her hotel while  Dante prepares for her on-camera work. The Guild members boat down Amsterdam's canals trying to patch up their differences. Beatrice appears on a balcony above the crowd waiting for her in the street and Dante is so moved by her presence that he/she accidentally steps  into traffic and is killed by Beatrice's limousine. The piece ends when the The Guild is chased from the city,  Beatrice leaves for the airport and Lucifer offers advice about the state of things in Florence. A group of children sing that even if we the audience don't know what's going on, then that's our problem because they do, while the workers in Purgatory quietly send a soul upwards to Paradise.

L-R Beatrice Lucifer and Dante

It sounds confusing and it is, although seeing a second performance would probably help. The staging however is well done, with four screens showing the filmed action while Dante, Beatrice, Lucifer and one of the Purgatory workers sing from a walkway  framing the orchestra. Behind the orchestra,  the souls in Purgatory and the river Styx are represented by a trough of transparent plastic balls, some of which the dungaree clad workers  hoist  up to a gantry representing Paradise.

Andriessen's music is written for large orchestra and is deliberately repetitive in the usual way of minimalism,  but it is very skilfully orchestrated and of sufficient melodic interest to bear repeated hearing or even a recording. It is also often very loud however, so much so that Synergy Vocals and the soloists were all amplified. The orchestra and Synergy Vocals - all in dungarees too incidentally - played and sang marvellously for Reinhold de Leeuw while the best of the solo singing came from Ciaron McFaddon - positively radiant when poised on the high gantry at the beginning of the evening.

All in all then, a somewhat over-complicated piece of music-theatre which could well  be worth seeing twice to catch up with the plot and sung texts. On the other hand, Hal Hartley heads his programme notes with the title, 'My God, what have we done?'  Some people may think that's a particularly good question.

Bill Kenny

Pictures © Ruth Walz (St.François) and Hans van den Bogaard (La Commedia)

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