St Francis in San Francisco

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

was walking.

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.

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7 Responses to St Francis in San Francisco

  1. Felix says:

    Just thought I’d add the first paragraph of Alex Ross’s review in the New Yorker:

    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.

  2. Erika says:

    The memories come flooding back. Thanks Felix.

    Ever since I read your entry I remember with pleasure the concert which affected me similarly as a teenager.

    For me it was hearing Bartok’s fourth string quartett in Stuttgart. I recall staggering home in a daze. When I bought my first records with Bartok’s music, most of my friends labelled it “cat’s miows”!

  3. Joseph Haletky says:

    Unfortunately, I did not get to last autumn’s production of St. Francis in San Francisco (despite living in nearby Palo Alto). I do have friends who saw it and were very much impressed; I am just now catching up with the work by listening to the CD as I drive.

    I resonate with the role this work has played in the development of your appreciation of the arts. For me, a similar experience was the American premiere in the mid-60’s in Boston of Schoenberg’s “Moses and Aron”. I got to go to a “student matinee” the day before the official premiere, sitting in the front row of the first balcony. I was thoroughly blown away by the visual, aural, emotional and spiritual experience of this opera, which, in its way, is every bit the challenging experience that the Messiaen work is.

  4. Parkes, Allan says:

    Does anyone know how I can get hold of a Libretto in English of this marvelous work?

  5. Runnicles Go Home says:

    I wonder if Runnicles will keep his promise and go back to Scotland?

  6. peter Moore says:

    Joseph: The CD box set (Kent Nagano, Halle Orchestra) has a great inner booklet with the libretto in French, German and English.

    This recording turned me on to this work. If anyone hears of this being performed anywhere, please let me know!

  7. I resonate with the role this work has played in the development of your appreciation of the arts.

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