The saints have shown us many ways to live a perfect life. Yet somehow the lesson we tend to come away with is that it is the saints who are special rather than their lives. We know they would not have it this way, that they want us to know and to use what they have learned in our own lives rather than idolize them; and we know this because this is what their lives and actions always teach us. Saint Francis is a perfect case. As we come to know him, we idolize him for his humility not because we wish we were less proud but because his humility, as it is described by the stories of his life, is so credible.
It was just these stories that Olivier Messiaen used for his libretto to this opera, and the greatness of this opera ultimately relies on the greatness of Francis’s life. Productions of the St.-François d’Assise are seldom mounted and revived even less frequently. The newest, which premiered in Amsterdam today, is the third of this millennium, after productions in San Francisco in 2001 and Paris in 2004. The great news is that this production is at least as great as those.
The orchestra Messaien demands is so large the Netherlands Opera production has put it on stage behind the proscenium, dispensed with a curtain, and placed the action in front of it, on a platform built over the pit. The conductor’s stand is offset to the right. In front of this on the right of the semicircular platform there is a large rough icon of a tree made of black planks slapped together; in the center a heap of black crosses; and a bench and a small stepped platform on the left. Above and behind the orchestra there is a large scaffold, and scaffolds on the right and left sides of the stage, all softened by scrim. Above everything is a white ceiling with a huge oval opening showing a dark blue sky.
Francis and the brothers are dressed in traditional capucines with hoods. There is no attempt at all to represent the monastery or even the door the angel will knock on too loudly in the fourth scene, only sparse furniture and scaffolding all around on which the angel or the huge chorus (dressed in flat black hooded gowns) can appear.
In comparison with other productions this one stresses the interaction of St. Francis with the other characters rather than placing him on a pedestal. In stressing the life lived with dramaturgy, this production leaves us with a more concrete sense of personal truth. For this Rodney Gilfry did a wonderful job, and the emphasis on action took some attention away from the question whether he could succeed the voice of José van Dam. To my consternation his voice faltered six or seven times during the first act alone as he moved to upper notes. At the beginning of the second act, we had an announcement that he was singing sick and thereafter the faltering almost disappeared. By the Third Act it was clear he would have to reach beyond his own expectations to complete the piece, but he did. In the closing scene, which was made to depict not the death of Francis but Francis dying, Gilfry’s personal effort brought everything else to a climax. His final scale upward, praying that God fill him, ravish him, inebriate him with His excess of truth, came through with heart, free of straining effort though slightly clipped, and made me sob.
There were two great costumes, the Leper and the second garb of the Angel, once she revealed herself to Francis in the Fifth Scene. The latter was a close representation of the kaleidoscopic detail for which Messaien called in the libretto, rather than the plain whites and wonderful one-winged monochrome blue of previous productions. But the Leper was a new idea and a tour de force. He had a plastic scuba-like suit of lemon yellow and black irregular shapes all over and looked like a gila monster. Here the acting of Hubert Delamboye and, as everywhere else, the directing of Klaus Bertish deserves special mention.
There are many moments in this opera where the main tones being sung fall between tones you can name. One comes near the end of Scene Four when Bernard answers the question he has Jesus put to him, that face is the likeness of His (de Vous, de Vous). Several come in the Sermon to the Birds. Our Angel added a new one that I think did not belong there, a rather too sharp note when she delivered the truth to the Leper in the Third Scene. But in the purity of her delivery, Camilla Tilling held this wrong note without a slip, perfectly in tune. She is very pregnant at this time, and it affected her long notes not at all.
Everybody could see conductor Ingo Metzmacher at work throughout, and yet he was not overly conspicuous except for a moment during the scene change between the first and second scenes. The long intervals of bird music in the Sixth Scene were perfect. Though he was placed behind the singers rather than in their line of sight nobody missed a cue (there were a few monitors for the singers, including one in the front row center). Unfortunately, the piccolo part that announces the arrival of the Angel had to be brought off by a mere human: placed right in the front of the orchestra it came off too loud and shrilly out of tune. Soon enough the xylophone takes it up and covers the error; let us hope this can somehow get fixed.
The chorus was magnificent. Their last note, with orchestral tutti and gleaming white light from the rear of the stage, was louder than the last note of any Gurrelieder I have heard. As to the light, it might have been the very same one Nordey used at the Paris production in 2004: a rectangular array, ten by twenty feet, of about thirty spots that gradually brighten to a level you cannot believe you can still look at, and then black out for the end.
For me the crucial message from Francis’s life is his discovery, which Messaien places right at the beginning, that although we might be glad to have all the abilities and good things that God has given us, the only thing we can really take credit for is accepting some part of the pain of Jesus on the Cross with equanimity. This alone is perfect joy. We must not confuse this act of acceptance with self-flagellation: life inflicts enough injustice on us and it is the acts of others we must accept and forgive, not our own. The theme returns in the penultimate scene, when Francis prays that God grant him two things before he dies: to suffer the pain Jesus suffered on the Cross and to find himself in possession of the love with which Jesus was able to forgive those who inflicted this pain upon him. The fulfillment of these two wishes was emblematized in Francis receiving the stigmata, one of the fullest experiences of God’s presence an individual can imagine undergoing. It is the function of great art to remind us of these stories and show how very credible they are, how close and near at hand it is for us to bring their pattern into our own lives.