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Most Eloquent Banalities

I left the Paris Opera, late on a cold November night in 1983, convinced of two things. One was that the opera whose world premiere I had just suffered through, Olivier Messiaen’s Saint Francois d‘Assise, had no chance whatever of earning a place in the international repertory. The other was that, if such an unthinkable circumstance were to transpire, wild horses (les chevaux sauvages) could never drag me again into its presence.

It didn’t occur to me at the time to lavish blame on someone other than the aged Messiaen for what I had found interminably dull and overextended in this, his first and only opera. Surely the inspiring surroundings of the Opera‘s Palais Garnier, and the musical leadership of the redoubtable Seiji Ozawa, were above that blame, or so one had to believe. Full awareness came only later, with the appearance two years ago of the DG recording under Kent Nagano, which honored the aspirations toward eloquence in Messiaen’s music as the Paris production had not -- for the eye or for the ear. Now, following productions in Salzburg and Berlin, the work has been installed at the San Francisco Opera (through October 17) in its first American staging.

The opera is still hard to love, though easier on discs than in the flesh. Over five hours we are invited to observe, without much in the way of confirming incident -- the healing of the Leper aside -- the growth in spirit and wisdom of Assisi‘s legendary saint, his rise above the lesser souls among his co-believers, his communion with Nature’s other creatures, most of all her birds. Birds, birds, birds: For something like 45 minutes the saintly Messiaen proclaims his own kinship with the saintly Francis in this matter of ornithological passion. One fidgets, vainly waiting for their feathered, clattering, chattering friends to get baked into a pie or, at least, to fly the coop.

There are few surprises in Messiaen‘s orchestra here, except for its sheer exuberance in the marshaling of his usual massed, apocalyptic brass, the urgent summonings of clattering mallet instruments, and no fewer than three of his iconic noisemakers, the wailing, throbbing keyboards known as the Ondes Martenot. Around and above all of this -- and truly surprising -- is the choral writing, the dense chording of semitones and microtones. In San Francisco’s extraordinary production, a congruence occurs between the deep and expansive choral texture and the visual effect of singers on a slow turntable seeming to fill an entire world with their presence and their sound. Overall it is texture, more than melody and harmony (which here -- as elsewhere in the Messiaen oeuvre -- borders on the banal and, now and then, crosses the line), that earns the most admiring attention in this ecstatic yet sporadically off-putting score.

Jose van Dam had pretty much owned the title role since the 1983 premiere; ownership has now passed, in glory, to Willard White (the Golaud in the L.A. Opera‘s Pelleas, the St. Joseph in the Philharmonic’s upcoming El Niño, thus asserting his mastery of roles both sacred and profane). That one role and that of an attendant Angel aside -- set forth by Laura Aikin with irresistible, athletic charm -- Saint Francois is not a singer‘s paradise; its strengths derive mostly from the tight interweave of its complex linearity. It fell to Donald Runnicles, the company’s music director and the most significant holdover from the previous administration, to bind this all together in a performance taut and rapturous.

Nicolas Brieger‘s production begins with silent film: Assisi’s great St. Francis Basilica brutally damaged by the 1997 earthquake. St. Francis‘ story, as he tells it, unfolds in both the distant past and only yesterday. Hans-Dieter Schaal’s stage builds on the recent horror; pieces of ruined crosses lie everywhere, extending menacingly out toward the audience, and Francis‘ rude cave abuts a modern three-story office building. Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s costumes are also of no time and every time; the more earthly of the Franciscan brothers carry around bookkeeping ledgers and sport modern-day fedoras above their priestly robes. Alexander Koppelmann‘s lighting creates its own magic; a soft gray luminosity covers everything, and the colors that pierce through -- a gorgeous blue streak that resolves into the Angel (complete with sunglasses) of Francis’ dreaming -- create their own astonishment.

I‘m going on about the looks of this piece because, simply put, it transcends anything I have experienced in an American opera house. This is San Francisco’s first season actually planned from Pamela Rosenberg‘s new leadership. Of the new productions on her agenda, Saint Francois has, naturally, gotten the most notice; the production team includes old pals from her German years. That the opera lies on the difficult side makes her move the more courageous, and my enthusiasm for the result does not include any confidence of its success at the box office.

“Animating Opera” is the title Rosenberg has concocted for the repertory for the first years of her regime, through 2006. Under that rubric individual operas are further clumped and titled; the brochure reads like a college course catalog. Whether Saint Francois is, as the brochure reads, a “Seminal Work of Modern Times” is, however, arguable; I have similar doubts about Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, the second work on the “seminal” list (up for 2003-04); both works strike me more as interesting dead ends. (I might have thought that Wagner‘s Parsifal would be the obvious “seminal” antecedent to Saint Francois, but there isn’t much Wagner in her syllabus at all, only a Flying Dutchman for 2004-05, listed under “Fairy Tales.”) Rosenberg‘s plan, fancy titles and all, is the work of a creative general director willing to integrate serious musical thinking into the entertainment value of the product. In these dreary days on the classical-music front, she emerges as a brave visionary. Yet the question lingers: Is the stature of “seminality” adequate justification for a work’s arrival into the repertory? To the list of works of undeniable influence that are also lousy entertainment I must -- with all respect to the marvelous production and in defiance of the cheering multitudes in San Francisco last week -- add Saint Francois d‘Assise.

The rest of my San Francisco week, Turandot and Ariadne auf Naxos, was largely business as usual. Jane Eaglen’s Turandot blazed mightily against the obsessive redness of David Hockney‘s 1993 sets, but Runnicles’ leadership this time was curiously flaccid -- at times downright tired. There was also Patricia Racette‘s intensely lovable Liu; Jon Villars’ sturdy, high-decibel Calaf did, alas, wander from pitch once or twice. Deborah Voigt‘s splendid Ariadne and Laura Claycomb’s stratospheric Zerbinetta sparked director John Cox‘s unexceptionable take -- first seen at the Chicago Lyric in 1998 -- on the Richard Strauss charmer. Two nights in a row, the fat ladies got to sing -- and did they ever!


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