The online New York Times today runs a story by John Rockwell about a current production in Berlin of Olivier Messiaen’s monumental opera “St. Francois d’Assise,” one of the great musical stage works of the twentieth century. (Director Takes Flight With St. Francis’s Birds) Some argue that it is the greatest opera of the second half of the century. The work, based on several scenes from the life of the Christian saint Francis of Assisi, is as much an oratorio as an opera, without much dramatic action. The action is in the music–the score calls for seven or so principal singers, a chorus of 150 and an orchestra of 150, including four “ondes martenot”, these rather strange electronic keyboard instruments that Messiaen was so fond of for their ethereal and swooping effects. Oh, and did I mention that there are more than five hours of music in the opera? The pace is glacial, but (judging from the brilliant recording of the work made in 1998 conducted by Kent Nagano on DG with Jose Van Dam and Dawn Upshaw in the leading roles of St. Francis and the Angel) the work has an immense, mystic grandeur.

The interesting thing about the current Berlin production is that it was designed (at at the very last minute, directed) by Daniel Libeskind, a Polish-born, Israeli-raised, American-trained and German-based architect. (John Rockwell notes that in his youth, Libeskind was also an accordion virtuoso.) The Berlin production of “St. Francois” apparently has nothing to do with Messiaen’s very explicit design and stage directions; the set is a grouping of 49 (7 x 7) rotating cubes that are lit in various ways. The design was conceived years before Libeskind was engaged for this production, so in effect it was “imposed” on Messiaen’s opera.

This production calls into question the whole relationship of the elements of art in opera–design, lighting, costume, music, acting. (One of Libeskind’s buildings is his architectural “completion” of the uncompleted third act of Arnold Schoenberg’s opera “Moses und Aron.”) Do unrelated scenic elements enhance or detract from the musical experience? Are we challenged by architecture to find new ideas in musical expression?

Messiaen’s “St. Francis” will be performed for the first time in the United States in September at the San Francisco Opera.

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