Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 30th of August 2009 at 3 - 7.15 pm

COMPOSER Olivier Messiaen (Wiki)
REVIEW (San Francisco)

MESSIAEN: St François d'Assise, an opera in three acts
L'Ange.......................... Camilla Tilling
St François.................... Rod Gilfry
Le Lépreux................... Hubert Delamboye
Frère Léon.................... Henk Neven
Frère Massée................ Tom Randle
Frère Elie...................... Donald Kaasch
Frère Bernard............... Armand Arapian
Frère Sylvestre.............. Jan Willem Baljet
Frère Rufin.................... André Morsch
Netherlands Opera Chorus, Residentie Orch/
Ingo Metzmacher (Radio Netherlands)
Olivier Messiaen (1908 - 1992) managed to write only one opera in his life, with initial reluctance and then great devotion (1975 - 1983); he was a reverent Catholic (and spiritual joy was the virtue he prized most highly) but he did not object to opera; in fact he analysed the operas of Mozart and Wagner in his role as a music professor. After declining a commission from the Paris opera house, he was taken to dinner at the presidential palace, and was there commanded to compose one for them, by President Pompidou. He first contemplated making Jesus Christ the subject of his work, but he felt unworthy, and so he turned to the Christ-like figure of Saint Francis of Assisi (who lived in the 13th Century). Ultimately, Messiaen produced a music drama that is longer than Wagner's Parsifal. Like Wagner, he composed the libretto and the music. Although he had studied Tristan and Isolde, he refrained from including Francis's friend Saint Clare in the proceedings.

This work is divided into three acts, with eight scenes (3, 3, 2), to which I would give these one-word titles (Messiaen's titles in brackets):
[1] CROSS [La Croix]

[2] PRAYER [Les Laudes The Lauds]

[3] KISS [Le Baiser au Lépreux The Kissing of the Leper]

[4] GRACE [L'Ange voyageur The Journeying Angel]

[5] BLISS [L'Ange musicien The Musician Angel]

[6] BIRDS [Le Prêche aux oiseaux The Sermon to the Birds]

[7] WOUNDS [Les Stigmates The Stigmata]
[8] TRUTH [La Mort et la Nouvelle Vie Death and the New Life]
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) produced religious devotional music for organ, and for orchestra (including the exotic electronic instrument known as the ondes Martenot, which emits sounds you could actually make in one of those toy whistles with a plunger); but he only composed a single opera in his whole life, and it was about a single man, a monk, namely Saint Francis of
Assisi (13th century).

I have always been fascinated with Francis, and I have visited Assisi (Rome is the only other Italian town I have been in). I am not a globetrotter, and I have now given airline travel away: (1) because aeroplanes pollute the atmosphere and contribute to climate change; eventually, when they are fuelled with sunshine, I might get into one; (2) I am personally a hazard to the world. When I departed from Athens airport for Paris, terrorists (fearmongers with explosives) came in and blew it up; after I had inspected the awesome York Minster, the roof caught fire; and after I had marveled at the magnificent church of Saint Francis in Assisi, an earthquake ruined it. There is a possibility that a disaster might one day coincide exactly with my visit to a celebrated place, and that thought keeps me close to home.

But the Assisi catastrophe might have been divine retribution. When I went there, I wanted to see his original little chapel, as pictured on a postcard that I had on show in my study at home. Our woman guide on the bus claimed to know nothing about it, and herded us all up the hill to the great basilica of Saint Francis, through Vanity Fair (Buy! Buy! and Bye Bye to your money), past the shop of his father, which he left to take Poverty as his bride (also Chastity and Humility, but that does not make him a polygamist). A church in memory of his dear friend Saint Clare is also up there. But this opera is not a Hollywood movie, so she is not in it.

Here is the solemn and sobering point. Before he passed on, Francis instructed his Franciscan friars (brothers) to prevent any adorning or aggrandizing of his tiny chapel. Once he was out of the way, his devoted admirers built a large church over it (to protect it from the weather, perhaps), and also the one on the hill with elaborate art work. That makes two grand edifices in his honour, and if the saint knew, he might feel aggrieved and turn in his grave with so much agitation that the earth could tremble and the walls tumble.

Messiaen's music is not a procession of pretty tunes, and this opera is longer than Wagner's Parsifal, so it requires sympathetic attention. He was crazy about birdsongs, and he took great pains to note down their various calls; but a chorus of them can seem cacophonous!

Afternote: I happened to be out in the forest and the meadows listening with earphones to the BIRDS section of the opera, with our own local birds singing outside me, and myself whistling, too. A harmonious cacophony, I think.

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