Rod Gilfrey as St. Francis
Photo : Ruth Walz/DNO 2008
I’ve got mixed feelings about the new production of Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise
which I saw on Monday night at The Netherlands Opera
during the 5th of nine schedule performances. Would I pay to see it again if I was going to be in town a few more days? In a heartbeat. Was I glued to my seat, riveted and moved to tears? Not exactly. The work is a masterpiece without a doubt. Performances are relatively rare and when they do occur they are often overshadowed by the few artists who have performed in it, be that conductors, vocalists, or directors casting long shadows for those who follow. A lot of this comes with the territory in contemporary operas. So, not living up to expectations seems unavoidable for a performance like the one in Amsterdam where everything is completely new — a new production from Pierre Audi is conducted by Ingo Metzmacher with Rod Gilfry singing the title role for the first time in his first appearances with the company.
Comparisons to what have gone before are unavoidable. Gilfry has taken a lot of heat for this performance somewhat unfairly. He is definitely lighter in tone than his two best-known predecessors, José van Dam and Willard White. Add to this, apparent illness in the first two performances of the run, and you have a recipe for overly negative reviews. Gilfry was better than what I feared, given the press I’d read. That he attempts the role at all and pulls off the performance he does is laudable. He creates a more vulnerable and human Saint François. It is true, however, that as of this point in the run, he continues to struggle somewhat vocally by the end of Act II and into Act III, be it an issue of health or stamina or something else. It’s still a performance worth seeing. And many people may get to, considering that tonight and this coming Thursday’s performance are being filmed for what I can only suspect is a future DVD release.
The production from Audi takes an almost opposite tact from the famous light-bulb and TV monitor Salzburg production several years ago. He elects to have everything on stage look as low-tech and simply constructed as possible. Sets consist of scaffolding and unadorned planks of wood. Costumes are bulky, rough-hewn space-age affairs. All of this takes place with the orchestra on stage immediately behind the action under a canopy of blue sky that is replaced by light-bulb stars in the end. Having the orchestra front and center is not a bad idea given that DNO music director Ingo Metzmacher and the orchestra give a great performance that is the lynch pin of the evening. Camilla Tilling’s performance as the angel and Tom Randle’s Frère Massée are both quite good.
But it does seem that for each great idea there's a missteps. Chief among these is the use of a non-singing group of children in the last scene of Act II. Apparently Audi thought working with children would be preferable to working with animals so Saint François delivers his sermon instead to this rag-tag lot like some intergalactic Romper Room. And what kid doesn’t love a lecture about birds? A few of these kids desperately need some notes like not talking during the performance and that drawing on the stage with chalk as instructed is different from banging on the stage with chalk during the music. They’re a trite distraction in the piece and need to be elsewhere.
In many ways Saint François
is reminiscent of Tristan und Isolde
. Not in terms of content or musical history, but because both are such complex and monumental works of art in their own right, a perfectly satisfying performance is almost unimaginable. Part of the joy in Messiaen’s piece, like Wagner’s, may be the joy in pursuit of the difficult-to-attain. Not that there haven't been great performances, but pulling them off is no easy task. The Netherlands Opera has mounted a difficult and massive work with great care. It doesn't always work, but it is significant and worthwhile nevertheless.
Labels: Opera Review 07/08, Out of Town