Messiaen – St François d’Assise

Opéra National de Paris – Bastille: October 20 2004

Conductor: Sylvain Cambreling. Production: Stanislas Nordey. L'Ange: Christine Schäfer. Saint François: José Van Dam. Le Lépreux: Chris Merritt. Frère Léon: Brett Polegato. Frère Massée: Charles Workman. Frère Elie: Christoph Homberger. Frère Bernard: Roland Bracht. Frère Sylvestre: Guillaume Antoine. Frère Ruffin: David Bizic. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

To some extent, Paris was lying in wait for this new production of St François, the third since 1983. It raised questions that added fuel to simmering disgruntlement with the new management. Did we really need a new production, not actually having had the opportunity to tire of Peter Sellar’s very good (and no doubt expensive) 1992 one? Was it wise to programme 8 performances? Why two 40-minute intermissions, leading to a six-hour evening starting at 5.30 p.m. even on weekdays – and to about one third of empty seats? Even the first night was more sparsely-attended than usual, and, as in addition people drifted off at the intermissions, a friend of mine, a critic, described the evening as “a cross between the Farewell Symphony and The Raft of the Medusa.”

The press seem basically to have been divided between those who found the whole thing sublime and those for whom the combination of Sylvain Cambreling’s slow tempi (adding a full 40 minutes to the total playing time compared to the past) and young Stanislas Nordey’s static staging made it a dire ordeal for all.

My own feelings were ambivalent. Like Bruckner, Messiaen was a man of pure and simple faith. Only I’m tempted to paraphrase Wilde on truth by suggesting that faith is rarely pure and never simple. And a man of pure and simple faith can hardly be expected to have a sense of the theatre, still less of the opera, whose patrons seldom if ever share it. Bruckner steered clear. My neighbour, exasperated by the libretto, dismissed it as “niaiseries” (inanities). I find it no less cringe-making than that of The Dream of Gerontius; and occasionally, the other evening, in a world where religious fundamentalism and fanaticism seem to be thriving, found it actually disturbing. But the sounds were so glorious and the singing so good that at times I wished I had religion so I could enjoy it to the point of ecstasy.

The singing was, indeed, so good that I wondered if the rumours of discreet miking at the Bastille were true, despite the fact that the orchestra sometimes covered the singers. (One friend of mine, an architect involved in some productions, says they are; another – the critic – says they aren’t.) Van Dam was his customary stylish, intelligent self, but I was surprised to hear him quite so well. Christine Schäfer sounded appropriately celestial (but suspiciously audible). Chris Merritt’s unruly vibrato suited his petulant character – and I wasn’t surprised to hear him at all. The rest of the cast were without fault.

The parti pris of the staging was, basically, to raise the singers up and present them to the audience as if in a monstrance, against a background that contrived, without a single religious symbol, to be vaguely, solemnly ecclesiastical. The semi-circular space, hinting at the apse, sometimes showed its metallic structure, like the inside of a silo or gas holder; sometimes it was veiled; sometimes it was inscribed with the sung text. The brothers moved about in this space as much (i.e. as little) as the action required. The angel was an odd, childish figure in white; as the ange voyageur, (s)he carried (her) his wings in a perspex suitcase. St Francis moved very little. Sometimes he simply couldn’t, perched on a ledge against a rough square of green in the air, or locked into his industrial chic pulpit. The sets would make an excellent, sober, modern St Francis’ church; the lighting was dramatic and precise.

In all, then, once you settled down into the slow rhythm of the proceedings, a good show. But it’s true that at Cambreling’s tempi (though he claims they’re Messiaen’s), the slow progress through the inane texts is tiresome, and you can well understand some people not making it to the end.

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