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Messiaen – Saint Francis of Assisi

St Francis – Rod Gilfrey

Angel – Camilla Tilling

Leper – Hubert Delamboye

Brother Leo – Henk Neven

Brother Masseo – Tom Randle

Brother Elias – Donald Kaasch

Brother Bernard – Armand Arapian


Netherlands Opera/The Hague Philharmonic/ Ingo Metzmacher

Pierre Audi - Director


Opus Arte OA 1007D [3 DVDs – 275 minutes – recorded May/June 2008]

Messiaen’s only opera stands in a category of its own and presents considerable performing problems.  With a running time of more than four hours it appears to be built on an epic scale, and yet the events that are depicted in the eight Tableaux are essentially intimate and outwardly mundane.    Both monumental and mystic, this is not so much a drama as a journey of a human soul. 

Events that rock the spiritual world may barely ruffle the surface of the temporal one. What makes this a work of genius is Messiaen’s total understanding that the passage of a soul towards sanctity is made up of infinitesimal steps. It is the progression of those steps that is remarkable and his music completely recreates this process, revealing a sequence of miracles to the audience.  He has an uncanny ability to summon up the invisible and portray spiritual ecstasy in sound terms.

What better example could he have chosen than St Francis, there is an obvious synergy in their mutual devotion to birds.  The shriek of a kestrel serves as a significant punctuation mark and St Francis’s sermon to the birds has become as much of a musical icon as it is central to the popular conception of this saint.

But make no mistakes, this story is by no means seen through rose tinted glass.  At an early stage Francis is confronted by a leper who challenges him both physically and mentally, and it requires enormous composure to overcome both fear and revulsion and embrace his perceived enemy.

This episode is followed by a period of calm and the journey between the twin monasteries of Assisi and La Verna.  The pathway still exists and I was lucky enough to be able to explore a small section of it last year. The setting may be idyllic, but there is a constant sense of danger both from the rugged nature of the terrain and remoteness of the situation – I would have been very glad of the company of the Angel which Messiaen introduces – a pure toned soprano, such as Camilla Tilling, accompanied by the lightest of orchestrations.

Netherlands Opera brought this work to the Proms last year and it was a mind blowing experience; huge orchestral forces and sung from memory, even by the chorus - something that will stay with me all my life.

The original stage version captured on DVD is something different.  Much of the drama is there: the confrontation with the leper of Hubert Delamboye is perhaps even stronger and the short tempered impatience of Brother Elias of Donald Kaasch, mirrored in the sort of music that might have been borrowed from Peter and the Wolf, is vivid, but somehow more is less; and the all important sermon to the birds, tricked out with mock trees and lively children’s chorus (more Magic Roundabout than Miracle) strikes a false note.

Rod Giufroy is outstanding and the other principals are totally committed, producing performances of huge strength – but I can only recommend that you listen harder than you look.

Serena Fenwick


Photo credit Ruth Walz