Saint François d’Assise

Saint François d’Assise

St Francis – Rodney Gilfry
Angel – Heidi Grant Murphy
Leper – Hubert Delamboye
Brother Leo – Henk Neven
Brother Masseo – Charles Workman
Brother Elias – Donald Kaasch
Brother Bernard – Armand Arapian
Brother Sylvester – Jan Willem Baljet
Brother Rufus – André Morsch

Chorus of The Netherlands Opera

Hague Philharmonic Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 September, 2008
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Since its Paris premiere 25 years ago, Messiaen’s “Saint François d’Assise” has gradually established a singular place in the operatic repertoire – its potency as a stage-work stemming almost entirely from those non-theatrical qualities that ought to have been its undoing. None of the UK opera houses has yet undertaken a staging, but a concert presentation of four scenes was given in London during 1986 and the complete work received a highly effective semi-staging at the Royal Festival Hall two years later.

That performance was conducted by Kent Nagano, who has championed the work with rare devotion. Ingo Metzmacher directed it towards the end of his three-season tenure at Netherlands Opera, and here took the podium for what was the opera’s first hearing – whole or in part – at the Proms.

This was very much a concert presentation – with the only props being wooden benches on which the singers variously sat or gathered around, and one or two ‘sundries’ such as the unwieldy crutch used by the Leper. The latter was clad wholly in black, whereas the Angel wore a brilliant white outfit and the Brothers a combination thereof – which attire might have seemed more appropriate to the Bedlam scene in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”, yet which rarely went against the spirit of the music. This was one occasion where the Royal Albert Hall lighting could be gainfully deployed, and the resulting colours and intensities were rarely less than apposite to the context at hand – for all that they might have seemed simplistic, even crude, to the twentieth-century’s most discerning musical synaesthesiast.

The cast itself was good if, not least compared to that which Nagano assembled for the 1998 revival at the Salzburg Festival, hardly earth-shaking. Eschewing the reserves of wisdom evinced by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or the more impulsive fervency of José Van Dam, Rodney Gilfry was yet a believable and sympathetic Francis – his demeanour astutely poised on the cusp of the worldly and the saintly, though the voice itself is not a commanding one and showed signs of strain towards the end of Act Two (the hour-long second interval being more than justified!). As the Angel, Heidi Grant Murphy was similarly persuasive if again not banishing memories of Dawn Upshaw in what remains the latter’s most significant stage undertaking – her sweetness of timbre and elegance of phrasing not always complemented by an awe at the terror and magnificence that he [sic] both embodies and evokes.

In this respect, Hubert Delamboye’s portrayal of the Leper was the most convincing assumption – his pain and anger audibly directed towards rediscovering that humanity which, with Francis’s help, he at length regains. The Brothers who comprise the remainder of the cast were a variable assortment: Henk Neven’s affectingly naïve Leo and Charles Workman’s understated eloquence as Masseo were arguably the best yet heard, while Armand Arapian’s Bernard was hardly less fine in its purveying of gentle wisdom. Donald Kaasch’s tremulous and often unsteady Elias (admittedly the one character of questionable motive) gave scant pleasure, while Jan Willem Baljet and André Morsch were secure if hardly distinctive in the lesser roles of Sylvester and Rufus. The Netherlands Opera Chorus made the most of its intermittent but often crucial contribution, singing with absolute unanimity and a clarity of projection which were both effortlessly sustained across Messiaen’s vast orchestral expanse.

It is in this latter respect that this performance really came into its own, thanks to the vivid immediacy of the Hague Philharmonic’s playing and Metzmacher’s insightful conducting. Those accustomed to the relative smoothness and easefulness of Nagano’s approach may initially have been disconcerted by the vigour and attack invested into this most monumental of all Messiaen’s scores, yet rhythmic definition and dynamic contrast are themselves vital parts of this composer’s armoury, and were tellingly in evidence here; as were the three ondes martenot – two of which were placed in those Second Tier boxes nearest to the platform, so ensuring that their curving parabolas crowned the instrumental texture with a thrilling exactitude. All in all, Metzmacher endowed the dramatic dimension of Messiaen’s music with a sense of theatre that makes one look forward to his taking on the vastly different demands of Korngold’s “Die tote Stadt” at The Royal Opera House early next year.

“Saint François d’Assise” remains the defining yet most divisive opus in Messiaen’s output: a work in which he fully realised his religious and ethical convictions by giving them the concrete form they might not otherwise possess. There are miscalculations and longeurs, but the sense of cumulative intensification in the latter stages is undeniable, and that a composer of this stature gave vent to his beliefs in this manner is something for which believers and non-believers alike should be grateful.

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