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St François at the OSM

Salle Wilfrid Pelletier
12/05/2008 -  and 9 December
Olivier Messiaen: Saint François d'Assise
Marc Barrard (St François), Aline Kutan (L'Ange), Chris Merritt (Le Lépreux), Laurent Alvaro (Frère Léon), Benjamin Butterfield (Frère Massée), Antonio Figueroa (Frère Élie), Gino Quilico (Frère Bernard), Martin Auclair (Frère Rufin), Normand Richard (Frère Sylvestre)
Chœur de l'OSM, Michael Zaugg (Chorus Master), Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano (Conductor)
François Racine (Stage Direction), Jean-Baptiste Barrière (Visual Creation)

Since September Montreal has been enjoying a Messiaen Autumn, an extravaganza of some three dozen concerts in various venues, plus lectures and symposia, plus the release of three new CDs. The pinnacle event (taking into account the forces involved) is surely the production of Saint François d'Assise by the OSM under its music director, Kent Nagano.

Maestro Nagano has championed this work since its inception 25 years ago (its premiere was in Paris on 28 November, 1983). He actually lived in the Messiaen/Loriod household while the composer was completing the score – and, incidentally, still uses the old manuscript score with Messiaen's markings. (A note on the score: it is in eight hefty volumes – one for each scene – and weighs 12 kilos.) This daunting work has not received all that many productions as yet, and only one full staging in North America (in San Francisco, 2002). Maestro Nagano has conducted it in Lyon, Salzburg, Paris, London, Madrid, Berkeley and Utrecht, either in staged productions or concert. This is the Canadian premiere.

One reason opera companies or orchestras are hesitant to take it up is its budget-straining length, with about 245 minutes of music in its three acts. The OSM starts its performances at 6 pm and gives the audience a 50-minute break after Act I, during which survival rations are made available. Another strike against it is the virtual lack of dramatic tension. Just as Messiaen composed a lengthy piano work, Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jésus (regards meaning contemplations), his opera could justifiably be called Huit Regards sur Saint François. The time span and dramatic stasis are meant to force the audience into a contemplative state of mind.

The OSM production is an enhanced concert, with entrances and exits staged by François Racine, and the seven men portraying friars dressed in the requisite simple robes. In addition, a large screen placed above the stage contains ever-shifting visual images designed by Jean-Baptiste Barrière. The visuals superimpose close-ups of the soloists against a background of foliage, birds, landscape, etc. in reference to images suggested in the text. And above the large screen are surtitles in French and English.

The soloists are very strong overall, and outstanding is French baritone Marc Barrard in the title role. With a voice that is warm and rich, his projection of the text is a model of clarity – although Messiaen's design for the vocal lines and voice/orchestra balance are a gift to the singers who are never required to strain or bellow. Barrard could have injected more colour and expressiveness in places like the death scene, but the sheer attractiveness of the voice makes one want to hear him again.

Yet another excellent French baritone, Laurent Alvaro, performs the role of Frère Léon. His voice is a nice contrast to Barrard's, being higher and leaner. His performance is a model of sincerity and directness.

Aline Kutan is a high soprano – one of her specialties is the Queen of the Night – and she gives a rapt performance as the Angel. Having her sing from the side of the stage would seem to put her at a disadvantage, but such is not the case. The Angel is supposed to be a male figure but she is dressed in a very major fluffy gown. The effect is both angelic and glamorous.

A last-minute replacement in the role of the leper is Chris Merritt. He originated the role back in 1983 and, although the voice is no longer youthful, he strongly expresses the character's anguish, turning to joy at his cure.

Gino Quilico (where has he been for the past several years?) as Frère Bernard gives yet another impressive, steady performance. His attractive voice has darkened over the years and contrasts well against the other two baritones.

The two tenor friars are Benjamin Butterfield and Antonio Figueroa. Butterfield (Frère Massée) gives a likeable and engaging performance, although his voice is rather small for the huge space of the Salle Wilfrid Pelletier. Figueroa's character, Frère Élie, is the vicar, or head of the friars, and his youthful voice, attractive as it is, lacks the authoritative weight one expects from this gruff character.

Both the chorus and orchestra are augmented with extra, mostly youthful, performers for this ambitious project. Messiaen called for 150 choristers; in Montreal we have 98 and they lack nothing in either power or finesse. When employed in smaller groups (which is most of the time) they sound fine, and the grand finale comes across as a heavenly avalanche. The glorious finish is one of Messiaen's few nods to traditional musical structure; it sounds a lot like the finale of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder.

The orchestra is also employed only occasionally all at once and usually provides a nimbus of sound accompanying (but never overpowering) the singers. Nagano's precise handling of the endlessly varying orchestration is a wonder to behold. Orchestral passages are among the many highlights of the performance, notably the zany dance for the cured leper and the music for the birds after François has delivered his sermon. The peak among many high points is the Angel's music intended to give François a glimpse of heavenly bliss. It amounts to an array of apparently simple but daringly tiny sounds – and it works! Truly a magical moment that holds the audience spellbound.

It is hard to predict the performance future for this challenging work. Perhaps it will become an occasional festival piece, like Pfitzner's Palestrina. Having another champion like Kent Nagano – and a city like Montreal with a hard core of Messiaenics – would certainly be advantageous. It has its longueurs, especially during the 112-minute second act. A good 10 percent of the audience abandoned ship before Act III (although this isn't all that bad – I've seen larger flights during lengthy works elsewhere). I wish it well, although I would be surprised to cross paths with it again.

One criticism of OSM policy: an unwelcome innovation for this production is that the program is available for sale ($5) instead of being included with the admission price – and yet it contains no biographical information on the singers, which is both frustrating and discourteous.

P.S. If the four hours or so of Saint François don't provide enough of a Messiaen dose, on December 10, the composer's 100th birthday, one can attend a day-long marathon at Notre Dame Basilica, when eleven organists will perform the complete organ works. The celebratory autumn continues.

Michael Johnson



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