Olivier Messiaen's only opera, Saint François d'Assise, closed last night at San Francisco Opera after a run of six performances. This production was the first staged one in North America, and there was much to do about it. The house was quite full, as the production received some acclaim. I was curious what all the fluffle was about, as I have heard Les Mages from his organ cycle La nativité du Seigneur, which only provoked a fit of hysterical giggling.
The music was often choppy, very chromatic and discontinuous. In addition to a full orchestra, there were five gamelan percussionists and three ondes martenot players. These eight people were visible on either side of the stage in little platforms, apparently there was not enough room for them in the orchestra pit. I found gamelan very odd next to violin & co., to say the least. As for the ondes martenot, the instrument is supposed to have an unworldly sound, but I must say I prefer the harp or organ for this quality. The ondes martenot sounds more like a mobile phone than music from heavenly spheres.
They say that Messiaen was interested in suspending time, subverting the very idea. But I could never get lost in his music, at times the music was indeed dull. But I did like his libretto, which he wrote himself, long as it was it was dramatic enough and not at all unreasonable.
The singing was pretty, sometimes sounding very much like an oratorio. I particularly liked the L'Ange, sung by Laura Aikin. The part was eerie, and Aikin moved in a sort of naive and graceful way that was apt. Some of her choreography recalled Martha Graham. Willard White was a convincing Saint François, he has a rich baritone that is kindly. In the seventh scene, when François receives the stigmata, he is lifted on a beam and rends his clothes. At in these moments he looked like a Zeus coming down from the heavens.
As far as the rest of the singing, none of the other soloists stuck out as being either good or bad. The chorus was nice, especially in that seventh scene, the ardent strains of "François! François!" where a relief.
The staging was perhaps the prime reason most people could sit (or stand, as in my case) four and a half hours for this opera. The set was sparse mostly involved a spiral path that could be turned. It was fairly quiet for how large it was, making a sort of crinkling noise that could be drowned out by percussion but not voices. The costumes were likewise simple, monks in rough habits, angel in an ultramarine blue body suit with one wing, and the chorus in trench coats, some with hats. All together it felt a bit like a Magritte painting.
There were clever things done with the scrim, with projections, and an especially cunning use of snow on that spiral road.
Before the opera I was asked when Messiaen lived and how Charles Barber's pre-opera lecture was. During the intermissions I was asked a plethora of questions about how standing room in the orchestra section worked, and whether or not one could find a seat. I was also offered seats on two occasions. On my way home I was asked if I was a "Spanish" dancer, and if I thought the opera sounded "eastern."