by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, October 28, 2002.
The artist who strives to create a work of everlasting genius faces many obstacles these days, not least a lack of popular demand. In the end, however, nothing stands in the way of immortality but a lack of mad ambition. Olivier Messiaen's "St. Francis of Assisi," the grandest grand opera since Wagner's "Parsifal," came into being in 1983, during the first Reagan Administration, when Men at Work topped the pop charts. Somehow, it has already acquired a historical aura, as if it were an antiquity whose head and paws are only now emerging from the sand. "St. Francis" may have to wait a century or two before it finds its proper public, but a few brave opera houses are venturing to stage it, and the history books should reward them. The heroic new production at the San Francisco Opera will probably be remembered long after the entire current season at the Met is forgotten.
"St. Francis" is not easy listening. It is five hours long, devoutly Catholic in content, and by turns dissonant, jubilant, voluptuous, and austere. There are eight tableaux, each recording a stage in the life of the saint. Francis kisses a leper, speaks to the birds, receives the stigmata, dies in a state of suffering joy. The libretto, which Messiaen wrote himself, would have posed no problems for an audience of fourteenth-century Loire villagers. The music is something else again: a twentieth-century echo chamber in which prosaic turns of phrase acquire shattering overtones. The composer once remarked that he saw the Resurrection as an atomic explosion; likewise, his Francis has to undergo a death that sounds like the apocalypse. Sitting through the opera is at times a physical challenge—even Wagner knew better than to write a two-hour second act—yet the experience leaves one feeling strangely liberated. It harks back to one of those archaic Christian liturgies in which spells of boredom give way to precisely staged epiphanies—as when, in the Greek Orthodox Easter service, the church goes dark and the light of a single candle remains.
Messiaen's great epiphany occurs in the fifth tableau, in which Francis meets a Musician Angel on the road. The episode is taken from Franciscan hagiography, according to which the friar once fainted after hearing an angel play a viol. He told his brethren, "If the Angel had played one more note—if, after down-bowing, it had made an up-bow—from unbearable sweetness my soul would have left my body." In Messiaen's version, the Angel prefaces his concert with lines borrowed from St. Thomas Aquinas: "God dazzles us by an excess of truth. Music carries us to God in default of truth." The strings play a soft, unceasing C-major chord; over it, three ondes martenot—antique electronic instruments with eerie, piercing voices—unwind a thread of melody that touches on ten of the twelve chromatic notes. As you listen, your ears are teased by two textures of sound: warm strings spreading out from the center; electronic tones pinging everywhere. At the same time, you try to reconcile the stasis of the chord and the drift of the theme. These tensions are not resolved; instead, they mark out an almost visible space, in which you may well catch a glimpse of whatever it is you consider divine. The San Francisco staging heightened the moment by creating one of the most striking tableaux in recent memory: Willard White, as Francis, lying on the ground, his body racked in ecstasy; Laura Aikin, as the Angel, dancing slowly in midair; and, at the end, ciphers from a medieval parchment materializing on a scrim. Someone behind me whispered, "My God."
The angel responsible for this quasi-miraculous evening is Pamela Rosenberg, the new general director of the San Francisco Opera. A veteran of the lively, sometimes demented European opera scene, Rosenberg wants to confront a much more conservative American public with something other than the usual picture-postcard Puccini. San Francisco operagoers, an enclave of old money in a city of anarchists, have never been ones to embrace experimentation; until the nineteen-nineties, the house had presented a grand total of two world premières. But at the performance I attended (the second of six) the black-tie crowd seemed game for the challenge. Whether because of the intensity of the music or the familiarity of the subject (the city's patron saint had come home), San Franciscans received the first stage of Rosenberg's revolution warmly.
Messiaen had narrow ideas about how his opera should be staged. He wanted a monastery, a forest, and an angel in the style of Fra Angelico. He was disturbed by advance descriptions of Peter Sellars's Salzburg production, which opened just after his death, in 1992, and probably would have hated the liberties taken by Nicolas Brieger, the director in San Francisco. Messiaen loved bright colors and favored loud shirts; this production went in for tony black and gray. A few of Brieger's touches did come off as willfully outré; the decision to dress the chorus in trenchcoats and fedoras, for example, lent a curious film-noir flavor to the final scene of death and resurrection. The production notes say that these costumes represent the worldliness that Francis transcends. But isn't the final chorus supposed to be throwing open the gates of Heaven? Evidently, a lot of Bogart impersonators will be standing around when the saints go marching in.
Costuming oddities aside, this "St. Francis" was done splendidly, with verve and devotion, and even a little wit. The stage was alive with meaning. Francis walked a luminous curving path, and the path often moved under his feet, rotating back and forth or rising into the air. Sudden bursts of light relieved the Germanic gloom. Willard White, a singer who is never as widely praised as he should be, presented a rock-steady, rich-voiced alternative to the famous Francis of José Van Dam—an earthier, more rugged saint. Aikin was both pure and sensuous; you couldn't take your eyes off her, especially when she was wearing blue sunglasses.Chris Merritt brought power and pathos to the role of the Leper. Donald Runnicles, the conductor, found a near-ideal balance between the score's violence and beauty.
Is Messiaen the new Mahler, the prophet for our time? In Berlin, where I am staying for the fall, he has been almost as ubiquitous as Beethoven. Simon Rattle placed the composer's "Three Small Liturgies" on one of his first Berlin Philharmonic programs; Kent Nagano, the conductor of the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester, led "The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ." There was also an adventurous but notably unsuccessful production of "St. Francis" at the Deutsche Oper, directed by the architect Daniel Libeskind. The sets, an array of rotating lettered cubes, had a grim beauty, but they found no rapport with the joyous spirit of the opera. Here, too, were many men in coats, scurrying around like pigeons in Trafalgar Square. When I found myself thinking of a Monty Python skit, the spell was broken.
Far more satisfying was Nagano's performance of "Transfiguration," a work that makes gruelling demands on a vast array of musicians and singers. Like "St. Francis," it is a synthesis of all the composer's styles, from riots of birdsong to episodes of celestial jazz, from ferocious dissonance to blazing tonality. Nagano, a conductor who becomes more masterly with each year, shaped this seeming chaos into perfectly rolling Scriptural paragraphs, every climax prepared by a pregnant silence. The Deutsches SymphonieOrchester played with astonishing virtuosity, losing little in comparison to Rattle's Philharmonic. The Rundfunk Chorus sang fiendishly complex sonorities as polished blocks. Chord by chord, the performers built another edifice of Messiaenic sound—a spectral cathedral that offered one or two glimpses of perfect joy, then melted into the night.
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