St Francis of Assisi is radically different from conventional opera, but that’s exactly why it’s exciting. This performance was so good that its five hours flew past in a blaze.
Ingo Metzmacher conducted this cast and choir in Amsterdam in June. In the staged production, by Pierre Audi, the orchestra was fully visible. The set was minimal, just a tangle of black crosses. This illustrates how the opera “works”. It’s orchestral music with voices, rather than the other way round. The monks sing in regular cadences, like chants, rarely far from conversational mode.
Their lives are spartan, but around them, the orchestra creates glorious panoramas of light and colour. Like the monks, we can’t see Heaven, but can hear it in the music, and it’s all around, infusing the opera with exuberant spirit. Even by Messiaen’s standards, the orchestration is inventive, with unusual instruments and techniques, so the sounds are elusive, making you listen more acutely, which is perhaps the message of the whole piece.
There are three Ondes Martenots, using the natural oscillation of sound waves to create music out of ’empty’ space. The Angel, too, materialises out of thin air. “Tu parles Dieu en musique”, it sings, “You speak with God through music”. “Entends la musique de l’invisible”. The orchestra played the Angel’s Viol music with such gossamer delicacy that it seemed to float, in an unworldly plane. Concepts too difficult to grasp rationally can be expressed obliquely through music. That’s why Francis tells the music to study birds. They speak without words.
God himself speaks through the massed choir, in the mystical scene where Francis receives the stigmata. It’s a magnificent, multi-layered piece that’s very difficult to carry off, as Messiaen wanted to create the effect of light and sound flying forth in different directions and at different speeds, but Metzmacher achieved it, combining precise discipline with ecstatic, exuberant timbre. Moments like this show how much Stockhausen learned from Messiaen in terms of celestial vision, and the idea of sound moving through space.
Heidi Grant Murphy was the shimmeringly-voiced Angel, and Rod Gilfry sang St Francis. He sings for about three hours, and over a wide range, hovering like an interface between the monks’ cadences and the ecstasy in the orchestra. It’s heroic. This is undoubtedly one of the high points of his career. Hubert Delamboye’s Leper was sung with vivid dissonance, suddenly soothed when Francis cures him with a kiss. The 200 strong choir were very well-prepared, singing extremely complex parts with perfect precision. Full honours, though, to Metzmacher and the Hague Philharmonic for vibrant playing that brought out the translucent glories in this highly original music.