ST FRANÇOIS D'ASSISE
BBC Prom 70: 7 September 2008
M is for Messiaen, but also mastodon, mogadon, Meyerbeer, de Mille, Massenet – there was time for such associations to be made over such a leisurely afternoon and evening. One might have thought a work of this scale, both length and forces, would be an ideal piece for the Proms, but in the event, the audience was almost embarrassingly meagre; the legendary enthusiasm of the ‘promming’ audience evidently has its limits: four hours or more of music is too long to stand.
Even the Proms programme highlighted the perceived problems of the work – David Gutman wrote ’St Francis of Assisi can make Parsifal seem like an intermezzo’, but what was striking about this meticulously achieved performance was how the sheer sincerity of the work, its unshakeable faith, can induce a corresponding suspension of disbelief, and maybe, temporal constraints. An initial skim of the libretto can be discouraging. There is no conflict, no grappling with the nature of faith that is the lodestone of the only other post war French opera of profile, Poulenc’s Dialogues du Carmelites. Yet a libretto is just a libretto: expectations are confounded by the sheer aural resplendence of Messiaen’s musical world. Many passing criticisms, or jolts of mood or style are rendered – well, almost impertinent, by the catharsis of the work’s best pages, and maybe the longueurs are necessary milestones on the stately journey. In any case comparisons with musical dramas, such as Poulenc’s or Wagner’s, are beside the point – the opera is a sequence of frescoes. Messiaen’s musical language is not organic or cumulatively symphonic – as Boulez, Messiaen’s pupil, said of his teacher ‘He doesn’t compose, he juxtaposes’, resulting in an experience closer, despite the antithetical musical syntax, to the timelessly unfolding pageantry of Philip Glass.
There is no denying the works oddities, however. Ones expectations of the second act – two hours long – is that the last of its three scenes, St. Francis’ sermon to the birds, will be the climax. In the event, the scene is oddly proportioned, all foreplay and when the ‘grand concert of birds’ arrives, it seems solid, perfunctory even, lacking the precisely imagined filigree detail of earlier concert works such as Oiseaux Exotiques. At times, the work seems to be more compiled from earlier inspirations than composed afresh, and there are things that Messiaen just doesn’t do – vernacular is one: rusticated friars speak the same exalted musical language as Saint and Angel. There are risible moments too: a snatch of West Side Story in the Leper’s dance, Brother Elias’s non-cooperation with the Angel is rendered as Fafner, and a schmaltzy chord progression preluding the Sermon to the Birds conjures up les filles blanches from the last act of Thaïs.
The heart of the work, and the closest it gets to dramatic progression, is in the first two scenes of Act Two, The Journeying Angel, and the Angel Musician. The Angel’s cosmic knocking produces a real frisson of expectation and the music for the Angel’s viol playing is miraculous – extraordinary that a C major chord, interlaced with a trinity of ondes martinots, (those precursors to electronic instruments that are a trademark Messiaen colour) can sound so new minted; an aural benison indeed. The hushed playing, complemented by the hush that spread through the audience was spell-binding indeed.
The space at the Royal Albert Hall was well utilized at this point, with the ondes placed in boxes at the sides, and in front of the conductor, and the benefits of this concert presentation deriving from the acclaimed Netherlands Opera production by Pierre Audi were clear to behold throughout the work. Simple benches at the front of the concert platform were skillfully used, and the blocking helped differentiate between the Brothers. Messiaen’s vocal writing, aside from the only female role, the Angel, has nothing like the profile of his orchestral invention, so this specificity was helpful. Charles Workman invested Brother Masseo with humble authority, Henk Neven, despite some suspect vowels, brought Brother Leo’s timorous nature to the fore. Hubert Delamboye, as the Leper, and Donald Kasch as the intemperate Brother Elias made the most of their more extrovert opportunities. The augmented Hague Philharmonic orchestra were tireless, and the outsize chorus spellbinding – particularly in the clusters and uneasy sonorities of the Stigmata scene at the opening of the last act - and under Ingo Metzmacher’s baton, the many rhythmic unisons and silences were extraordinarily crisp and unanimous. Heidi Grant Murphy’s pure soprano timbre, exemplary projection and effortless phrasing were ideal for the Angel. Rod Gilfry had a more problematic evening, tiring towards the end of the second act. It is an awkwardly written, and thankless role, placed relentlessly on the break, and the endless syllabic chanting (think Pelléas et Mélisande in slow motion) is a challenge to bring to life – worse, Messiaen doubles some of the big moments with massed wind and brass, making projection nigh impossible. Despite this, Gilfrey conveyed a numinous presence, an ability to pull focus when silence, and the vocal fallibility even worked for him in the protracted death scene.
I imagine the paucity of audience will have scared off intendants from ever staging this piece in the UK, yet its singular juices demand theatrical or visual realization – M is also for manipulation, and for all the work’s dramatic oddities, it is conceived to be surrendered to in a darkened theatre. Its magnitude prevents it from being presented too often, but it may well prove to be one of the most enduring and personal late twentieth century operas. M is for Mesmerizing – Magnificent!
© JULIAN GRANT 2008
© Julian Grant 2009