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11.10.04

Messiaen's Opera at the Bastille

Newspaper Reviews:


Marie-Aude Roux, La mise en apesanteur divine de "Saint François d'Assise", SDF de la foi (Le Monde, October 9)

Nicolas Blanmont, Van Dam retrouve Saint François (La Libre Belgique, October 8)

Agence France-Presse (via France 3) article (Opéra de Paris : accueil mitigé pour "St-François d'Assise" de Messiaen, October 7)

Eric Dahan, Nordey, humble messie de Messiaen (Libération, October 11)

Michèle Friche, Un homme, un ange et un cheminement (LeGuide.be, October 9)

Simon Corley, Couleurs de la Cité céleste (ConcertoNet.com, October 6)

Saint François d'Assise, Opéra de Paris, 2004
One of the operas I mentioned in my preview of the 2004–2005 opera season is one of my favorite works of the 20th century, Olivier Messiaen's only opera, Saint François d'Assise. The latest production of this opera at the Opéra Bastille in Paris opened on October 6, with Sylvain Cambreling at the podium (he also conducted the opera the last time it was produced in Paris in 1992). Agence France-Presse reported that, at the premiere, the audience did not give the new production, designed by French director Stanislas Nordey, a uniformly warm reception. At the curtain call, the director and his set designer Emmanuel Clolus
were booed by a part of the audience who, by contrast, were unanimous in their applause for French conductor Sylvain Cambreling and for the cast, with Jose Van Dam in the title role and the German soprano Christine Schäfer as the angel. [...] The reticence of a part of the audience for the production and sets may be due to a refusal of the choice of austerity, from the choice of somber colors with an ashy backdrop, and only two different scenes on eight lights, while Messiaen's music is flamboyant and colorful. Jose Van Dam and his religious brothers no longer wear the brown Franciscan habit. Instead they have the pleasing look of Emmaus friends with wool caps. The angel looks like a nurse in a white blouse, still with two white wings. "I am an agnostic," explains Stanislas Norday, "so I see Francis in his humanity."
Van Dam is described as still being at the height of his power at 64, in spite of the vocal demands of the role (he is on stage almost constantly, for over four hours). However, Nicolas Blanmont, writing in La Libre Belgique, noted that "his projection is limited—to the point of sometimes being covered by the orchestra—and the pianissimo passages no longer have the sound presence we expect from him." German soprano Christine Schäfer's soprano is "luminous," although her French diction could be improved. (Marie-Aude Roux in Le Monde skewers the casual nature of the costuming, calling Francis a "faith-filled homeless person, in T-shirt, zippered sweater, short maroon jacket, and Emmaus-style cap." That last, what an American would probably call a beret, is a reference to Emmaus France, the Catholic lay volunteer organization founded by Henri Groues, known better as l'Abbé Pierre, shown in this photograph.)

Simon Corley's review focuses on the hand of the new director of the Opéra National de Paris, Gérard Mortier, who was artistic director at the Salzburg Festival when the opera was coproduced there and at San Francisco Opera in 1992. He also acknowledged the booing from a part of the audience, perhaps because of the distancing effect of the staging:
The direction itself offers little to the eye: the singers are most often placed standing and facing the audience, with Saint Francis generally in a central position. Alone (or almost), the Angel, the Leper, or even Brother Elie merit greater attention, with mechanical (even a little outrageous) gestures, which somehow evoke the manner, or even the humor, of Robert Wilson. The concern is to compose real paintings, but it has to be admitted that the libretto encourages a certain static quality for directing actors and that it is difficult to reproach Nordey for directing an oratorio rather than an opera.
The opera calls for a large orchestra, nearly 100 players (still smaller than what Strauss had in Salome), including seven flutes, three tubas, ten percussionists (including xylophone, xylomarimba, and marimba), and three Ondes Martenot. The latter are placed in the first balcony, spaced far apart, leading to what Corley calls "an excessively reverberating sound," not only in the fact that they are separated from one another but that they do not fit into the orchestral fabric as a result. Marie-Aude Roux of Le Monde disagrees, writing that "the spacialization of the scenery corresponds to the spectacular distance of the music, with the divine voices of the three Ondes Martenot spread out above, at the rear and on the sides of the hall," adding that "the effect is stunning."

All reviewers were united in their praise for conductor Sylvain Cambreling, such as Eric Dahan in Libération, who says that Cambreling is conducting in Paris "the best Saint François of his career." Christian Merlin interviewed the conductor (Sylvain Cambreling : «Messiaen est magique», October 7) for Le Figaro, and here is my translation:
Do you think that Saint François d'Assise is now a part of the repertoire?

Not in Paris, in any case. It's been twelve years since it was produced, which is totally abnormal. And also, it was given only six times back then. It's true that it's more a festival piece: it requires an immense pit, a very large orchestra, lots of rehearsals, and its length demands an early starting time (5:30 pm), which is not easy for working people. But my hope is indeed to make Saint François part of the repertoire.

Is the music easy?

It's easy for the audience, but difficult for the performers. The strings have to be lyrical, the winds and brass are tested with incredibly virtuosic demands, the brass have long chants which strenuously test the breath support, and for everybody, the constant tempo and meter changes required constant concentration. The conductor has to control all that: this demands quick reflexes, because in the sermon to the birds, for example, it is physically impossible to read the score while conducting. That means you really have to have this music memorized to be able to anticipate everything.

You need to have the score in your head, rather than your head in the score?

Exactly. It's easier with an orchestra like the Opéra's, not only because it is very virtuosic, but because the French read music well: they have skills in sightreading that northern musicians don't possess. But out of 120 musicians, there are only 18 who played Saint François with me in 1992. That means it's a complete restaffing. After Pelléas, it was a very good time to get to know the orchestra of the Opéra, and I admit that I am very happy with their state of mind and the quality of their work.

If memory serves, your tempos are rather slow.

Messiaen indicated metronome markings, which must be obeyed. I am afraid of neither the slowness or the silences: with Saint François, we enter another dimension of time. The harmonies are so riches that you have to let them resonate: Messiaen well understood the phenomenon of sound vibration. I love to take advantage of the long time value. But José van Dam, who has sung Saint François with four different conductors, says that it's most difficult with me because I am the slowest.

How did you choose the operas you are conducting during your first season in Paris?

They seem to me to represent my priorities. There are two French works of the 20th century: for, even if I have mostly conducting abroad, I am after all a French conductor. With Janáček's Kát'a Kabanová, we have a composer I have conducted a lot and who has been dear to my hear for years. Then I had expressly asked for a Mozart opera: this will be La Clemenza di Tito. I have a score to settle in Paris with Mozart: I have never forgotten the disastrous critical assessment that befell me after Don Giovanni at the Châtelet some twenty years ago. I have never been able to tolerate reading that Cambreling is not a Mozartean, when Mozart is my favorite composer and when I have directed him in Salzburg, in Vienna, and at the Met. I told myself: "I will show them."
For anyone lucky enough to be in Paris this fall, performances of Saint François d'Assise will take place today at the Opéra Bastille, as well as on October 16, 20, 24, and 27, and November 2 and 5.

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