St. Francois in San Francisco

Today’s New York Times has a review of the San Francisco Opera’s production of Olivier Messiaen’s monumental opera “St. Francois d’Assise” (The Vision of a Mystic) The opening paragraph (in a blazing understatement) calls performance of the work “daunting”: 120 performers in the orchestra; a 100 member chorus, 3 performers on the ondes martenot (an electronic instrument of which Messiaen was extremely fond); four hours of music (over five hours in the theater with intermissions). Messiaen himself described several passages in the opera as virtually unplayable and unconductable because of their extraordinary difficulty and complexity.

There is a brilliant recording of “St. Francois” on DG with the cast from a 1998 production in Salzburg, including Jose Van Dam, who created the role of St. Francis at the Paris premiere in the 1980s, and Dawn Upshaw as the Angel.

One of the paradoxes of Messiaen’s music is that although the pace is glacial, the music has a compelling “rightness” to it that distracts from the very great length. Such is the case with this opera. There is no dramatic development as such; rather the work is a series of tableaux from Francis’s life: preaching to the birds, healing the leper, receiving the stigmata, his death in a blaze of glory. Rather, it is necessary to set aside our western view of time and musical development and adopt a more eastern view of transcendent time and contemplation on eternal themes. Only then does Messiaen’s music make sense.

The San Francisco production (the first in North America) features Willard White, the musically adventurous Jamaican/British baritone, as St. Francis, and Laura Aiken as the Angel.

The Times gave the production a rave review.

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