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'You speak to God in music: He will respond in music'

available at Amazon
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

available at Amazon
Live recording, Salzburg Festival,
(Upshaw, Van Dam, Nagano)
For some years, I have waited -- beyond hope, apparently -- for the production of Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise at the Bastille to be released on DVD. The reviewers of the 2004 staging noted some weaknesses -- director Stanislas Nordey and his set designer Emmanuel Clolus received resounding boos for their non-traditional production (no Franciscan habits, for example), it was hard to hear Jose Van Dam in the title role, and Christine Schäfer's French, as the angel, was not exactly idiomatic -- but still it was one of the triumphs of the tenure of Gerard Mortier in Paris. (It is one of the Belgian's favorite contemporary operas, and he also brought it to the Salzburg Festival when he was there, from which the reference recording on CD, also linked at right, was taken.) Well, that version has yet to appear, but the first and so far only version of Saint François on DVD appeared just last year, made during a 2008 staging of the work at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. Incredibly, this 3-DVD set has now been discounted to under half its original price, far cheaper than the CD version mentioned above.

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.

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