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Olivier Messiaen St François d'Assise
José van Dam; Christiane Eda-Pierre; Kenneth Riegel
Choir and Orchestra of Paris Opera/Seiji Ozawa
(Première: Paris, December 1983)
ASSAI 222212 [4 CDs; TT 230 mins; Discovery Records UK]


The release by ASSAI of the first performances of this mammoth opera on four CDs, with full text in French, is greatly to be welcomed. It breaks all conventional operatic rules with its leisurely pacing, but is neverthelesss gradually taking its place as an unquestionable masterwork, and has enjoyed a notable recent production in San Francisco. Seen&Heard reviewed it comprehensively, with illustrations, so I shall not duplicate the factual background here. Sometimes over the years I have felt that Messiaen's unique originality tends to pall with familiarity and over-exposure, but this recording of a historic paean to faith and nature has restored my admiration for one of the greatest works by one of the greatest composers of the last century.

Messiaen worked on St François d'Assise for nearly eight years (1975-1983). I took a scene at a time, spread over most of a week. This helped to preserve a fresh response to its multiplicity of beauties and I found myself increasingly engaged.

I found having the text in French only very acceptable, given its slow pace - with only a residue of school French, one can work out the gist easily enough.

It is good to have the original cast preserved and I found the performances of José van Dam as Saint François, Christiane Eda-Pierre, the Angel, and Kenneth Riegel as the Leper very satisfying. The music intersperses the utterances in its stately progress and the orchestral commentary is evocative and recorded in a natural way (not too many microphones, I guess) so that it all sounds very well, sonically entirely satisfactory, as well as being a historical document of first importance.

To get a feeling of its expressive range if you have doubts, try to sample the music of Le Baiser au Lépreux and the key scene Le Prêche aux Oiseaux, presumably the one which fired Messiaen's imagination. They bring together his lifelong preoccupations with Catholicism and ornithology; the opera is a quite wonderful summation of all Messiaen's music which has incorporated notated transcriptions of birdsong from all over the world, and in these dark days those two scenes can also be seen as a plea for compassion and conservation of a natural world threatened with irreversible destruction.

Peter Grahame Woolf

© Peter Grahame Woolf