Messiaen, Saint François d'Assise (dir.
P. Audi), C. Tilling, R. Gilfry,
De Nederlandse Opera, I. Metzmacher
(released on April 28, 2009)
Opus Arte OA 1007 D | 4h35
Live recording, Salzburg Festival,
1998 (Upshaw, Van Dam, Nagano)
It is also a beautiful and striking performance of this devastating work: although considered an opera, it was mentioned in my list of the best works of sacred music in the 20th century. Pierre Audi's staging is quite austere, with Franciscan habits made of quilted rags (costumes by Angelo Figus), most structures of the set looking like construction scaffolding (sets and lighting by Jean Kalman), and lots of wood planks nailed together. (The Leper's funny yellow-and-black striped costume reminded me of a sign at a construction site.) In the evocative second act, a midnight sky of stars and moonlight is seen through an oval hole above the stage. It goes dark as the angel appears in one of the central tableaux, costumed in something like a multi-colored raincoat, as if wrapped in a stained glass window, to play the mystical viol solo that communicates the joy of the blessed: she holds up two glowing filaments and touches them together as the unearthly sound of the Ondes Martenot is heard. The sound world of the opera, which Messiaen once grandly described as encompassing his entire compositional vocabulary (all the bird songs he catalogued, all his scales, all his prismatic chords), is haunting: not only the constant avian shrieks (sometimes, perhaps, a little grating) but those more fleeting, otherworldly echoes, like the celestial dissonance of the Sanctus that haunts Francis.
As the Angel, Camilla Tilling shows a voice of beauty, strength, versatility: distinguished already in Handel, Bach, and Strauss, she also excels in a more dissonant idiom. For a reference copy, it would be preferable to have Jose van Dam, the creator of the role, as St. Francis, but Rod Gilfry performs with both vocal and physical intensity. There are no complaints in the supporting roles, either. At the podium, Ingo Metzmacher is excellent, even though he was placed at the back of the stage -- with that enormous orchestra -- which must have caused problems with the balance with the singers (a pit at least affording some cover over the instruments). Probably as a result, the sound of this DVD seems to have been engineered, perhaps rebalanced, and then retimed to the video, in a way that is just slightly off at places. Still, a worthy addition for anyone interested in contemporary opera.