Heavenly Length

I left the Paris Opera on a damp November night in 1983, bored out of my gourd. I made it to the last Metro with only seconds to spare, determined to spend the rest of my time on Earth avoiding any further contact with Olivier Messiaen‘s Saint Francois d’Assise, whose world premiere I had just endured at considerable cost to both patience and posterior. Now a complete recording is available -- four CDs on Deutsche Grammophon of a live performance from the 1998 Salzburg Festival -- and with surprise and delight I find myself under the spell of every one of its 235 minutes of piercing, almost painful beauty.

Messiaen, at 75, had never before composed an opera. Even though Parisians were not exactly whistling his abstruse, convoluted music in the streets, he had attained regard as a revered and popular figure in a way that no American composer of similar stature -- Elliott Carter, say -- ever could. The press had conferred Major Event status on the new opera; it had become front-page stuff even in the tabloids. At the bar near my hotel, I was surrounded by people wanting a firsthand report, and I struggled to contrive polite answers.

Now I no longer struggle. In Paris, the spacious contemplations in Messiaen‘s loving pageant of moments in the life of the most human of all saints seemed to float unconnected to the drab staging accorded the work at the Opera’s Palais Garnier, with Seiji Ozawa conducting what sounded like a sight-reading orchestra. Peter Sellars created the 1992 Salzburg production, his staging consisting mostly of a vast array of video monitors; Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic served as the pit band, and people who were there still rave about it. Kent Nagano and Britain‘s Halle Orchestra took over for the 1998 revival; the photographs in DG’s lavish booklet suggest that the Sellars staging was retained, although his name nowhere appears.

Whatever its look onstage, the full impact of Messiaen‘s opera lies in its music, and this the new recording splendidly serves, in the orchestral performance under Nagano and the presence of Jose van Dam (who has owned the role since the beginning) as St. Francis and Dawn Upshaw as the Angel -- singing best described as saintly and angelic. From the recording you glean the extraordinary range of Messiaen’s unique blending of ancient chant into his own convoluted melodic manner, the diatonic simplicity of much of his harmonic practice, and the way in which a simple progression of old-fashioned major and minor triads takes on a blinding radiance from the flickers and glints in the orchestration. I remember the Paris audience stirring uncomfortably, with some booing mixed in, during the 45 minutes of Francis‘ sermon to the birds, the chirring woodwinds, an array of percussion culled worldwide and, worse yet, the keening of not one but three Ondes Martenots (the pre-synthesizer synthesizer that Messiaen favored to distraction). On home stereo the sounds are dazzling, the scene not a second too long.

I am not alone in deriving a certain discomfort from much of Messiaen’s music over the years, above all the mix of divine afflatus and human flatulence in the gesturing of much of his sacred stuff. Yet the composer of the Quartet for the End of Time and the orchestral Chronochromie -- the one an affirmation of the purity of simple beauty, the other a demonstration of the expressive potential in pure complexity -- cannot be set aside. It‘s tempting to look at Saint Francois as a summing-up for Messiaen: a 75-year-old creative spirit, far more acclaimed than damned, daring to assume a kinship with the noblest of all the saints who have trod the planet. It’s not an easy-listening kind of opera; Wagner‘s Parsifal, to which it is often linked, is downright frisky by comparison. Don’t wait for Saint Francois to show up at the Los Angeles Opera; the work is now at hand, at least, in the best conceivable format. It is magnificently served, and so are we.

Alexander Scriabin died in 1915, at 43; the world was thus spared his completion of the work he had dreamed about and tinkered with over his last dozen years. Mysterium, or so the work had been modestly called, was to unfurl over a week‘s time, part of a mystical ceremony that would elevate mankind to a higher consciousness. The performance would take place in a grand new temple to be built in northern India, with bells hung on nearby mountains. Death’s hand -- in the form of an infected pimple that turned septic -- stilled the project. All that remained were 58 unnumbered pages of sketches, some little more than doodles; if you think, however, that this paltry legacy has rescued the world from Mysterium, you don‘t know about Beethoven’s 10th Symphony, the Elgar Third or the uncomposed finale of the Bruckner Ninth.

Enter Alexander Nemtin (1936--1999), Russian composer of minor legacy, who came across Scriabin‘s bits and pieces in 1970 and immediately envisioned a glory of his own from the process of piecing them together, adding a considerable amount of his own glue over 25 years of ardent labor. The result, nearly three hours of a work that Nemtin titled Preparation for the Final Mystery -- in three movements modestly titled ”Universe,“ ”Mankind“ and ”Transfiguration“ and enlisting the services of pianist, organist, solo soprano, mixed chorus (singing wordlessly) and orchestra -- forms ”a single organism that lives and breathes, like an ocean.“ (These, at least, are the words of Julia Makarova, Nemtin’s widow, who collaborated on program notes for the new three-disc LondonDecca recording.)

Strange to relate, the results -- with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the massed hordes and the pianist Alexei Lubimov (who has performed more interesting programs here) -- turn out better than you or I might have feared. Up against the familiar horrors of Scriabin‘s own ”Poems“ (of Ecstasy or of Fire), some of this music is downright pretty, right up there with some of the better scores from movie music’s glory days. All the right things seem to happen: the rumblings of far-off phenomena, the cataclysmic outbursts as the Universe is hammered into shape by Forces far beyond, the ending as a single note (Scriabin‘s ”favorite“ F-sharp) hangs alone, amid distant bells. I cannot imagine sitting down and paying close attention to three hours of this golden glop, but in a world that supports the fraudulent virtuosity of a Yanni, and pays homage to the classical aspirations of a Paul McCartney, this kind of honest pretension takes on the gleam of a masterpiece.

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