I’m sure that I wasn’t the only New Yorker to book a flight to the west coast
when I heard that the new general director of the San Francisco opera, Pamela
Rosenberg, had decided to put on a production of Olivier Messiaen’s Saint
François d’Assise. I doubt, however, that the opera meant quite
as much to any of my fellow pilgrims as it did to me.
Saint François d’Assise – a five-hour extravaganza for a chorus
of 150 and an orchestra nearly as big, including 22 woodwinds, 68 strings, and
five percussionists – is almost impossible to put on: think Mahler’s Eighth
doubled. But in celebration of the composer’s 80th birthday in 1988, Kent Nagano
and the London Symphony Orchestra managed to corral the necessary forces for
a concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall.
I was 16, without any discernible interest in contemporary classical music,
and the plan was that my parents would go to the concert while I was left back
home to watch TV or whatever it is that 16-year-olds did back then. But it didn’t
work out that way: my father couldn’t make it, and my mother, in a flash of
inspiration, asked if I might want to come along instead.
I still vividly remember that evening, right down to the exact seats we were
sat in (on the aisle on the right-hand side) and even where we parked the car.
I had no idea at all what I was getting myself into.
Messiaen does the audience no favours at all in the first couple of scenes.
"On first hearing, the score of Saint François d’Assise may strike
some as a random assemblage of notes bearing no relationship to any music encountered
before," says John Palmer in San Francisco’s program notes, and that was
pretty much the case for me. At the beginning of the opera, there’s no brass,
very little woodwind: just lush orchestration and Messiaen’s inimitable densely-layered
textures. My mother, or the program, had told me that the piece was somewhere
between an oratorio and an opera, but I’d had precious few encounters with either
art form at that point, so that didn’t help me too much.
The production was semi-staged, and the singers hadn’t memorised five hours’
worth of music for the sake of one performance, so they had to carry their parts
around with them whenever they moved. And although we in the audience had a
copy of the libretto along with a translation, it’s hard, on first hearing,
to work out exactly what’s meant to be going on, plot-wise, just from reading
the text. So insofar as a story was told that evening, it was told by the orchestra.
And what an orchestra!
As the colours slowly started entering the music, as we started hearing snatches
of birdsong or the occasional curtailed crescendo, I found myself being increasingly
drawn in to Messiaen’s musical world. And then, at the end, came the astonishing,
incredible finale: a mind-blowingly loud and joyous starburst which, as Michelle
says, clears your sinuses right out. I’d never heard anything like it in my
life, and I don’t think that many of the other patrons in the Festival Hall
that night had, either: they ended up giving Nagano, the LSO and Messiaen the
longest and most heartfelt standing ovation I’ve ever seen.
That evening was the beginning of my education in classical music, and from
then on, with my mother’s help, I went to as many performances of the likes
of Bartók, Shostakovich and Britten as I could. But Messiaen always held
a very special place in my heart, and although I knew that his other works would
never quite achieve the heights of Saint François d’Assise, I always
looked forward to them enormously.
The opera itself, of course, was never put on: far too expensive, and far too
obscure. After its premiere in Paris in 1983, there was one production in Salzburg,
and that was about it until this year. At one point there were hopes that the
great operatic philanthropist Alberto Vilar might underwrite a production at
the Met in New York, and to that end Robert Spano and the Brooklyn Philharmonic
put on a concert performance of a few scenes, to bring him around. It just so
happened that my mother was visiting New York at the time, and I couldn’t believe
my luck in being able to turn the tables and take her to the very piece that
she had taken me to all those years previously. What we heard was just as good
as I’d remembered.
And then came the news from San Francisco: the opera company had made the daring
decision to hire Pamela Rosenberg from Stuttgart and that, to demonstrate the
city’s new-found seriousness about opera, she was going to put on Saint
François d’Assise in her very first season, in the city named after
its hero. There was no way I was missing this.
I’d never been to the San Francisco opera before. It’s a beautiful building,
and maybe it was just me projecting, but I could feel a buzz of anticipation
before the curtain rose. This was the defining opera of the season – it
is featured on the company’s t-shirts – and the reviews had been terrific.
For my part, I felt like a seven-year-old on Christmas Eve. I was nervous, as
well, for I had dragged along four friends of mine, none of whom had much experience
with opera, or any at all with Messiaen. Would they like it as much as I had,
14 years ago?
As soon as the opera started, the worrying stopped. The acoustic in the San
Francisco opera is crystalline, and you could hear all the layers in the music
perfectly. This production is a triumph for many people, but above all for Donald
Runnicles, San Francisco Opera’s long-time music director, and his orchestra.
Some of the music, especially in the great sermon to the birds, is almost impossible
to conduct, and Messiaen deliberately leaves a lot of its progress to the individual
musicians, out of the control of the conductor. I remember back in 1988 watching
with awe as Kent Nagano flipped through the enormous score of the piece at a
rate of about five or six pages a minute, conducting furiously in 2-3-2/32 time
or something equally complex as astonishing birdcalls came flying out of the
orchestra at us. Very few conductors would dare attempt it, and it is a great
testament to the rapport between Runnicles and his orchestra that he pulled
it off with such aplomb.
The production design was less of a triumph, although it was perfectly good.
I really didn’t need to see the chorus all dressed up in trenchcoats: it’s a
tired trope, which has nothing to do with what the opera is about. The revolving
ramp was ingenious, but it revolved far too much, and far too loudly: for an
opera house, San Francisco sure has noisy machinery. (It was particularly noticeable
in the final two scenes, when Saint Francis dies; for some reason the revolve
just kept on creaking away throughout both of them.)
And there were some peculiar choices, too: why leave Saint Francis stranded
above the orchestra pit during his transfiguration? (He’s meant to disappear
completely, to the point where "only a spot of light remains".) And
why bring on the stage hands at the end of the sermon to the birds?
But there were ingenious touches, as well, such as the one-winged Angel, whose
viol was replaced by the wires holding up the ethereal platform on which (s)he
Laura Aikin, who played the Angel with a twinkle in her step, was truly magnificent.
She has a central role in the production: not only is she the only female soloist,
providing our sole relief from the men of the monastery, but she is also visually
striking, in bright blue, in stark contrast to the browns and greys of the rest
of the production. Her mischievous characterisation was a joy to watch, and,
most importantly, gorgeously beautiful to listen to, with a strong, clear soprano
voice which penetrated straight to the heart.
Chris Merritt, as the Leper, also has a magnificent voice, as well as the acting
chops to really make us feel his suffering and consequential anger at the world.
In his scenes with Saint Francis, he more than held his own against Willard
White, which is not an easy thing to do.
And then there was Willard White, in the horrendously difficult title role.
I saw him a few years ago as Wotan in the Ring cycle at Covent Garden, and this
has got to be at least as taxing as anything which Wagner came up with. White’s
stamina was impressive, as was the clarity of his French, but I would have liked
a little more power. (Of course, I know how much I’m asking here, seeing how
much he has to sing: I’m not sure anybody would be capable of that.)
In any case, seeing the opera acted out on stage definitely helped a great
deal in understanding the action and the sequence of the scenes. And the acting
abilities of the cast, White foremost among them, were outstanding. His horror
of lepers, his transportation when the Angel plays the music of the invisible,
his suffering at the end – all were powerfully conveyed. While the concert
performances of this work were primarily musical events, seeing it staged helped
to emphasise the spiritual.
The one great disappointment of the San Francisco production was in the grand
finale. It might have been that the chorus was slightly smaller than in the
concert performances, it might have been that the orchestra was buried in a
pit, it might have been the sheer size of the opera house. I think it was mostly
the acoustics of the San Francisco Opera: clear, but none too reverberant. Whatever
it was, the great chord at the end had neither the emotional impact nor the
sheer decibel volume of the concerts I’d seen in London and New York. It ranked
maybe 7 out of 10 on the goosebump-meter: impressive, but not mind-blowing.
That said, however, the production was indubitably a triumph. San Francisco
has every reason to be very proud of Pamela Rosenberg, and I hope they revive
this production in the next few years. (I think every night sold out: San Franciscans
certainly embraced it.) Maybe next time I can take my mother, and truly repay
the gift she gave me in 1988.