Friday, September 21, 2007

Saint Francois d'Assise

Alex reports that Gerard Mortier plans to stage Messiaen's opera Saint Francois d'Assise. (Read the whole New York Sun interview here.)

I saw the American premiere of Saint Francois at San Francisco Opera five years ago. I caught only one performance, and note the following:
  • I'm a Messiaen fan. I love Turangalila, Quator pour la fin du temps, and almost everything else I have heard by him.

  • Saint Francois was the closest thing to torture I have ever experienced in the opera house or concert hall. I stumbled out of the second act thinking it had lasted three hours and was shocked to find it had only been 90 minutes.

  • I was sufficiently traumatized by the "Sermon to the Birds" - and the preparatory discussion of the birds - that I flinched months later at the birdsong in Kata Kabanova.

  • The night I saw St. Francois, I told a friend in instant messages that "St. Francois makes Parsifal look like Die Fledermaus."
Nonetheless, I will have to try again, as I have regretted for five years the fact that I only saw one performance. My working theory about my response is that I was suffering from the same problem some entrenched fans of Italian opera have when they see a Wagner opera for the first time: they are so used to the time scale of Verdi and Puccini that they are utterly defeated by the vast reaches of Wagner. I suspect that St. Francois is to Tristan as Tristan is to Il Trovatore.


pjwv said...

My theory on the Sermon to the Birds is that it must be incredibly difficult to coordinate and conduct and that's why it gets talked about so much and maybe even oversold by those putting on St Francois, even though from the audience's point of view it's, let me say, not really a boffo Act 2 curtain. There were many other scenes I found more powerful. I think your theory about the time scale is probably right; when I saw it I ran into a friend who complained after Act 2 but searched me out later to tell me that he loved it and his earlier reaction was just part of the inevitable downs that come with any five hours. I think I had heard a recording before I went, and in any case I was at the US premiere of "Scenes from St Francois" in Boston years earlier so I had had a sneak preview and knew what to expect in pacing.

Lisa Hirsch said...

That makes sense, though I think the whole damn opera is extremely difficult to coordinate and conduct. The preparatory discussion I was referring to is what Francis says in the opera itself, not to any publicity materials or discussion of the opera by SFO.

The leper scene was quite astonishingly great, which I attribute in part to the music and in part to the surprising greatness of Chris Merritt.

US premier in Boston: something Sarah Caldwell did? Wow.

pjwv said...

Actually, the US premiere of scenes from St Francois was by the Boston Symphony -- Ozawa had conducted the world premiere and so we reaped the benefit in Symphony Hall. I know they did the scene with the angel because I remember Kathleen Battle singing the part. I should find the playbill for the other scenes. Francois was Jose van Dam from the original cast. It was a concert presentation with minimal staging. At the end, Messiaen himself came out for a bow, which bowled me over. I did see a number of Caldwell productions, many of them memorable, but she was a little past her greatest days when I was in Boston.
I was thinking of the leper scene in particular when I mentioned other scenes being more powerful than the sermon to the birds.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Oh, that makes sense! Van Dam and Battle - I bet she was wonderful!

pjwv said...

Yes, she was -- it was a pretty remarkable evening all around, if I remember correctly. I wish the BSO would release it from their archives; I'd love to hear it again.

Henry Holland said...

the inevitable downs that come with any five hours

Nothing personal, of course, but ah, one of my pet peeves, the way length of an opera is described. St. Francois is not five hours long, it's 3:45, quite a difference; it's shorter than Les Troyens, Parsifal, War & Peace, Meyerbeer's stuff, probably.

Sure, add in intermissions and it's five hours, but hey, one is supposed to be out walking around, having a drink, that doesn't count! :-)

I couldn't get up to San Francisco for the Messiaen due to money woes, but my friend Patrick went. It's one of his very favorite operas and even he said he found The Sermon of the Birds trying.

There's a story that Messiaen was given a deadline for his score due to the need to get the Opera ready and he lamented that fact because he wanted to write another hour of music! :-) BTW, I saw a 900th generation videotape of the first production and it's pretty stunning.

Lisa Hirsch said...

St. Francois has a...distorting effect on your sense of time passing!

I know someone who was at one of the premiere performances. He went to Paris without a ticket and somehow managed to buy the last available seat, which was in the front row. I'm amazed that he can still hear. I will ask him what the production was like; maybe he'll post here.

pjwv said...

You're right of course about the length of the music but I do include the intermissions etc in the length of the performance, since to me that's part of the physical process of being at an opera and listening. You might feel differently, of course. I've been to many operas that have about two hours of music (like SF's recent Samson) and actually left the theater three hours after the first notes; I'm still getting home really late and feeling tired the next day. But I will be more careful about specifying that the performance was a certain length of time as opposed to the opera.

David B said...

re timescale: I'm always amused when rock fans describe some 5-minute song as "epic". Hah! I have a 15-hour opera cycle for you, I say. Now that's epic.

Lisa Hirsch said...