Notes and Editorial Reviews
Video format: 16:9 Anamorphic
Sound: 5.0 DTS Surround with PCM Stereo
Optional subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch
Messiaen's breathtakingly intense opera on the life of St Francis of Assisi stars Rod Gilfry as the charismatic visionary, beguiled by the glory of creation, yet fearful of both its imperfections and its transience. Pierre Audi's thoroughly engaging production for The Netherlands Opera brings out the naive imagery, the grandeur, and above all the vast tenderness of the resplendent score, revealed as a grandiose ritual with the meaning and purpose of life as its central theme. But the real drama of the work takes place in the orchestra. Elevated to
stupendous heights by the sublimely inspired Ingo Metzmacher, The Hague Philharmonic and the Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera combine forces with a brilliant cast to produce the finest possible musical pilgrimage.
"The orchestra, drilled to absolute perfection, played as if their lives depended on it, while the choral singing was superb in its intensity. The cast tellingly emphasized the physicality as well as the spirituality of Messiaen's vision. Heartthrob baritone Rod Gilfry played Francis as a charismatic visionary beguiled by the glory of creation, yet fearful of both its imperfections and its transience...A stupendous evening, and one of the great operatic achievements of recent years."
Saint François d'Assise is unique among operas. Decidedly anti-dramatic (there is little or no action), it fulfills Messiaen's aim to present the journey of St. Francis' soul toward grace. St Francis advises another monk, Brother Leon; he meets a leper, kisses and cures him; he encounters an angel; he preaches to the birds; he prays for and receives the Stigmata; he dies. The tempo, save for a few moments, remains stubbornly moderate; if you do not give in to this fact and wish for something else, you're lost.
The orchestral palette, however, takes the breath away, with close to 120 players, consisting of strings galore, huge wind and brass sections, and percussion (including woodblocks, drums, triangles, bells, xylophones, vibraphones, and the weird swooping sound of the electronic ondes martenot that always surprises). These sounds evoke birds, forest, ecstasy, the agony of the stigmata. Textures are always rich and fascinating and occasionally puzzling; by contrast, each word of the sung text is crystal clear.
For all its noise and strangeness, this is an opera that can make the listener feel that he's eavesdropping on someone's personal religious crisis, and I bet that's just what the composer wanted. Be wary of approaching it and be warned that given its introspective nature it sometimes can leave the listener very much alone. As a theatrical experience it does not engage: it's too slow and too internal. You may love it, you will admire it, but you won't listen to it a great deal.
I doubt that this Netherlands Opera production, directed by Pierre Audi, will be bettered. The orchestra is on stage, behind a pile of large, iron crosses; there's little to get in the way of the music's pageantry. It's almost a naïve approach and it works. Children sit around as Francis preaches to the birds, quietly. There's little lurching; movements are slow and natural. The moments of stasis seem correctly frozen in time and space. Fussing any further could ruin the peculiar balance; Audi knows when to back off, avoiding too much theatricality even in the grand moments. Jean Kalman's sets and lighting could not be more effective, the jagged crosses at once symbols of torture and blessedness, and TV director Misjel Vermeiren brings us very close to the Saint.
And his cast is superb. In the stunning audio-only recording under Kent Nagano (on DG--type Q618 in Search Reviews), the title role is sung with great austerity and beauty by José van Dam (he also sang it earlier for Seiji Ozawa); on this DVD, Rod Gilfry actually outperforms him. Playing a man who embraces nature, birds, and God with great passion translates subtly into physicality in this case. Gilfry is a good-looking guy with an innate sensuality: this humanness makes the piety tangible. He sings exquisitely and moves with great reserve and dignity. St Francis is on stage for most of the four-plus hours and Gilfry's appeal and concentration never flag.
The leper, as portrayed by Hubert Delamboye in an absurd black and yellow rubbery costume (better, I guess, than scabs and bumps and missing digits), is a tortured soul brought to peace by Francis; Hank Neven sings the uncertain Brother Leon with modesty. Audi presents the Angel simply--no fantastic flying around--and Camilla Tilling sings the role with utter simplicity and an aural peacefulness. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher knows that the story is in the instruments, and his superb orchestra can't be praised highly enough. The chorus also is spectacular.
Sound (5.0 DTS Surround/PCM Stereo) and picture (16:9) are ideal. Bonuses include synopsis and cast gallery, "The Children", "The Message", and "A Chamber Piece...Really", and are variably entertaining and important. Subtitles are in all major European languages and Dutch. This work never will be a repertory staple; it's an event. Messiaen fans will know that this DVD is more a necessity than a luxury; others will find plenty to fascinate them if they give it the requisite time, space, and concentration.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Saint François d'Assise by Olivier Messiaen
Armand Arapian (Tenor),
Henk Neven (Baritone),
Tom Randle (Tenor),
Rodney Gilfry (Bass Baritone),
Hubert Delamboye (Tenor),
Camilla Tilling (Soprano),
Donald Kaasch (Tenor)
Netherlands Opera Chorus,
Hague Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1983; France
Date of Recording: May/June, 2008
Venue: Het Musiektheater
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