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Art Lange
Fanfare, November 2009

There is an irony underlying Olivier Messiaen’s opera about St. Francis of Assisi—the music, so full of lush orchestral colors and exuberant, extravagant rhythms, is meant to illuminate scenes from a life devoted to austerity, sacrifice, and suffering. The mystery of Messiaen’s faith, however, commented upon throughout the libretto that he himself devised from Biblical passages, the saint’s own writings, and the composer’s poetic impulses, confirm that self-sacrifice in acknowledgement of Christ’s suffering leads to an ecstatic joy. And so the orchestra bursts through the primarily somber, nontheatrical singing to dazzling effect—dense tangles of birdsongs at different tempos, frightening hammer blows of heavenly consequence, brilliant percussive dances of bliss.

In this version, filmed and edited together from live performances in May and June 2008, the musical component, led by Ingo Metzmacher, is beyond reproach. The singers are distinctive and convincing, especially Rod Gilfry, who portrays St. Francis as strong, firm, and confident in his faith and desire to suffer—possible questions of the sin of pride notwithstanding—and Camilla Tilling, whose angelic interludes have a divine purity and selflessness. The orchestra is placed onstage, emphasizing its crucial role in the drama, but back far enough so the musicians are mostly out of sight; only the conductor’s back and arms, crisply articulating the complex rhythms, are clearly visible but not distracting. The minimal scenery—a pile of wooden crosses in act I, a few stylized trees, and some scaffolding—is starkly effective, although the equally minimal costumes (the monks wear heavy robes that look like they are molting, and the leper’s skin resembling leopard’s spots is a bad pun) apparently are quite different than what Messiaen had in mind. (For Messiaen’s perspective on the opera, see Olivier Messiaen: Music and Color/Conversations with Claude Samuel, Amadeus Press.) Director Pierre Audi eschews special effects in favor of small but striking details that bring the action to life—for example, St. Francis smells the leper before he sees him, later a group of children draw birds in colored chalk on the stage during the saint’s ornithological sermon.

This is not a conventional opera. There is no real plot and little character development or confrontation. The emphasis, then, over the course of these four-plus hours, falls on St. Francis’s persistent expressions of faith and sacrifice and the remarkable music that accompanies them. In one sense, Messiaen is already preaching to the choir, since there is little here that will attract the typical opera fan previously unfamiliar with Messiaen’s music—which is a shame, since the conviction of the composer’s beliefs and the grandeur of his music ring through loud and clear.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, October 2009

You will find pleasure in the sly musical shifts that accompany The Angel (beautifully sung by Camilla Tilling), the birds (a gaggle of young schoolchildren) and the chorus (the excellent ensemble of the Netherlands Opera). This opera rewards the patient viewer by shifting something in the soul.

An expanded Hague Philharmonic brings just the right texture to the music, thanks to conductor Ingo Metzmacher. But the real heroes are the singers, especially Californian baritone Rod Gilfry as St Francis. He tells us in one of the three four-minute featurettes how he managed to memorize his part by associating words and notes with particular stage movements. That is a small miracle in itself.

Peter Quantrill
Gramophone, October 2009

You will find pleasure in the sly musical shifts that accompany The Angel (beautifully sung by Camilla Tilling), the birds (a gaggle of young schoolchildren) and the chorus (the excellent ensemble of the Netherlands Opera). This opera rewards the patient viewer by shifting something in the soul.

An expanded Hague Philharmonic brings just the right texture to the music, thanks to conductor Ingo Metzmacher. But the real heroes are the singers, especially Californian baritone Rod Gilfry as St Francis. He tells us in one of the three four-minute featurettes how he managed to memorize his part by associating words and notes with particular stage movements. That is a small miracle in itself.

Peter Quantrill
Gramophone, October 2009

James Inverne
Gramophone, October 2009

This is the big one, as far as lovers of under appreciated operas are concerned (well, one of them anyway). Messiaen’s huge Saint François d’Assise has yet to receive a full professional production in the UK, but its champions will find much to confirm its status here. Rodney Gilfry and Co deliver vivid, committed performances, while Ingo Metzmacher’s conducting leaves no room for doubt.

Robert Levine, September 2009

Saint François d’Assise is unique among operas. Decidedly anti-dramatic (there is little or no action), it fulfills Messiaen’s aim to present the journey of St Francis’ soul toward grace. St Francis advises another monk, Brother Leon; he meets a leper, kisses and cures him; he encounters an angel; he preaches to the birds; he prays for and receives the Stigmata; he dies. The tempo, save for a few moments, remains stubbornly moderate; if you do not give in to this fact and wish for something else, you’re lost.

The orchestral palette, however, takes the breath away, with close to 120 players, consisting of strings galore, huge wind and brass sections, and percussion (including woodblocks, drums, triangles, bells, xylophones, vibraphones, and the weird swooping sound of the electronic ondes martenot that always surprises). These sounds evoke birds, forest, ecstasy, the agony of the stigmata. Textures are always rich and fascinating and occasionally puzzling; by contrast, each word of the sung text is crystal clear.

For all its noise and strangeness, this is an opera that can make the listener feel that he’s eavesdropping on someone’s personal religious crisis, and I bet that’s just what the composer wanted. Be wary of approaching it and be warned that given its introspective nature it sometimes can leave the listener very much alone. As a theatrical experience it does not engage: it’s too slow and too internal. You may love it, you will admire it, but you won’t listen to it a great deal.

I doubt that this Netherlands Opera production, directed by Pierre Audi, will be bettered. The orchestra is on stage, behind a pile of large, iron crosses; there’s little to get in the way of the music’s pageantry. It’s almost a naïve approach and it works. Children sit around as Francis preaches to the birds, quietly. There’s little lurching; movements are slow and natural. The moments of stasis seem correctly frozen in time and space. Fussing any further could ruin the peculiar balance; Audi knows when to back off, avoiding too much theatricality even in the grand moments. Jean Kalman’s sets and lighting could not be more effective, the jagged crosses at once symbols of torture and blessedness, and TV director Misjel Vermeiren brings us very close to the Saint.

And his cast is superb. In the stunning audio-only recording under Kent Nagano (on DG—type Q618 in Search Reviews), the title role is sung with great austerity and beauty by José van Dam (he also sang it earlier for Seiji Ozawa); on this DVD, Rod Gilfry actually outperforms him. Playing a man who embraces nature, birds, and God with great passion translates subtly into physicality in this case. Gilfry is a good-looking guy with an innate sensuality: this humanness makes the piety tangible. He sings exquisitely and moves with great reserve and dignity. St Francis is on stage for most of the four-plus hours and Gilfry’s appeal and concentration never flag.

The leper, as portrayed by Hubert Delamboye in an absurd black and yellow rubbery costume (better, I guess, than scabs and bumps and missing digits), is a tortured soul brought to peace by Francis; Hank Neven sings the uncertain Brother Leon with modesty. Audi presents the Angel simply—no fantastic flying around—and Camilla Tilling sings the role with utter simplicity and an aural peacefulness. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher knows that the story is in the instruments, and his superb orchestra can’t be praised highly enough. The chorus also is spectacular.

Sound (5.0 DTS Surround/PCM Stereo) and picture (16:9) are ideal. Bonuses include synopsis and cast gallery, “The Children”, “The Message”, and “A Chamber Piece…Really”, and are variably entertaining and important. Subtitles are in all major European languages and Dutch. This work never will be a repertory staple; it’s an event. Messiaen fans will know that this DVD is more a necessity than a luxury; others will find plenty to fascinate them if they give it the requisite time, space, and concentration.

Frank Swietek
Video Librarian, September 2009

Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992) spent nearly eight years creating his sole opera, which perhaps explains its Wagnerian length. Presented by De Nederlandse Opera, this 2008 production runs well over four hours (Act 2 alone spans a full two), but feels even longer since the music is extremely slow, which befits a deeply religious work. Over the course of seven tableaux, Saint François d’Assise depicts Saint Francis’s path to spiritual perfection, beginning with his embrace of a leper and continuing through his death and reception into heaven. The opera is filled with the sounds of woodblocks, gongs, and the electronic ondes Martenot favored by the composer, as well as echoes of the birdcalls that Messiaen catalogued and notated throughout his life (especially during the tableau of the holy man’s preaching to the birds—played here by children whose colorful garb stands out against the stark set of scaffolding and wooden crosses). The piece calls for seven soloists, as well as a large orchestra and chorus, and all acquit themselves well here. Rod Gilfry and Henk Neven are outstanding in the demanding roles of Francis and Brother Léon, while the Hague Philharmonic (seated at the rear of the stage) and the opera chorus under Ingo Metzmacher meet all of the score’s challenges. Saint François d’Assise is not an immediately accessible opera: the text is dense with Catholic symbolism, and the music’s exotic instrumentation and unfamiliar meters challenge the ear. But while hardly a popular figure, Messiaen was certainly an influential one, and this rare performance of his magnum opus is an essential item for serious music libraries and should be of interest as well to fans of modern opera. Presented in DTS surround and LPCM stereo, DVD extras include an illustrated synopsis, cast gallery, behind the scenes interviews, and more. Recommended.

William Braun
Opera News, August 2009

Any performance of Saint François will rise or fall on only two elements—the baritone in the title role, which is longer than Wagner’s Hans Sachs, and the conductor. This performance, filmed in Holland in 2008, is lucky on both counts. Rod Gilfry has had two illustrious predecessors as St Francis: José van Dam, who created the role and sang it in the famous Peter Sellars production, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who sang four scenes in concert at the Salzburg Festival. Gilfry combines van Dam’s warm tone, stamina, bravery and accuracy of tuning in the many rising intervals with Fischer-Dieskau’s pinpoint projection of language. He’s also very young, good-looking and healthy, which puts a new slant on the character. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher knows exactly how to show this score to best advantage. He understands when the music needs to be insistent and relentless and when it needs to be indulgent. Messiaen’s drama proceeds not by development but by the juxtaposition of blocks of percussion, winds and strings; Metzmacher shapes each of them beautifully. In this opera, the silences are as dramatic as the music. Though it is difficult to judge from an edited product, Metzmacher seems to have put a lot of thought into the variety of durations of silence.

Pierre Audi’s production must be deemed a success, in that it never gets in the way of the music. Audi is sensitive to the danger of a representational depiction of miraculous events—that it will be disappointing at best and silly at worst instead, he has come up with a simple, single gesture that symbolizes the Angel’s playing unbearably beautiful music. He has the bird sermon preached to young children in monk’s robes, each with a bird puppet on a stick. And Audi has the sense to leave the Grand Concert of the Birds all but unstaged. Indeed the music acquires a special vibrancy as the characters stand motionless during the flood of orchestral busy-ness. The enormous orchestra, in fact, is always in view, taking up the back half of the stage. This leaves designer Jean Kalman room for only some scaffolding, a pile of crosses and some skeletal trees under a giant oculus. This suits the giant blocks of sound.

Messiaen, who wrote his own libretto, and for whom color and sound were inextricable from each other, would have faulted this production. It presents an angel in plain white (with a posse of sub-angels), instead of in baroque colors, and a “naturalistic” style of acting, instead of something more like tableaux. But he would have been wrong to do so. Now that the Samuel Beckett estate has embalmed the master’s plays, keeping them from touching today’s audiences, it has become clear that the Bayreuth model, where works are tested and refreshed every decade, is preferable. Saint François was tested by this production, and it has turned out to be resilient.

Nate Goss
Fulvue Drive-in, June 2009

This is a fantastic production that showcases the revolutionary life of St Francis of Assisi and stars Rod Gilfrey in the lead role of the man who gave up the lavish lifestyle that he could have been offered through his father as a wealthy clothmaker and sold his life out to follow God. Messiaen’s work is on full display here with a powerful production including a strong cast and fine instrumentation to bring the not only of Messiaen, but of St Francis.

The total runtime is 275-minutes and chronicles in great detail the life of St Francis, the opera is broken into 3-acts, which are featured on each of the 3-discs in this set, the program is shot in 1.78 X 1 anamorphic widescreen and demonstrates some of the better moments we have seen for Operas on DVD, we would certainly love to get our hands on this release on Blu-ray eventually as well. In the meantime, we can see the limitations that the DVD offers, especially in the areas of overall resolution and this is mainly seen in the close-up shots. Colors are warm and vibrant, but the liquid-like image that HD can offer would make the production pop even more.

The audio presentation is featured with a LPCM 2.0 stereo mix and a more impressive DTS 5.1 mix, which are lossy, but still give a significant amount of resolution and detail considering the source. The voices and instruments are a bit more buried than we have come accustomed to with Blu-ray, we know that the lossless mixes on Blu-ray will clear this up and had a new level of sonic detail, a production this great really deserves such treatment.

Kevin Filipski
Times Square, May 2009

French composer Olivier Messiaen’s lone opera, the gargantuan St Francois d’Assise is as close as it’s possible to get to truly heavenly music—and in this stunningly spare 2008 production in Amsterdam, its spirituality comes through loud and clear, led by Rod Gilfry’s touching presence as Francis (best extra: featurette A Chamber Piece…Really)

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