Messiaen – Saint François d’Assise

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Messiaen
LABELS: Opus Arte
WORKS: Saint François d’Assise
PERFORMER: Camilla Tilling, Rod Gilfry, Hubert Delamboye, Henk Neven, Tom Randle, Donald Kaasch, Armand Arapian; Netherlands Opera Chorus; The Hague Philharmonic/Ingo Metzmacher; dir. Pierre Audi (Amsterdam, 2008
CATALOGUE NO: Opus Arte OA 1007 D (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 anamorphic)

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Messiaen’s centenary year resulted in rich pickings for devotees and newcomers alike, but this three-disc DVD of his magnum opus tops the lot. Saint François d’Assise is an opera unlike any other, with its drama being primarily interior in nature, but it needs to be seen as well as heard.

Several recent productions have been utterly appalling, the directors actively undermining fundamental elements of Messiaen’s vision. This Netherlands Opera production from Pierre Audi, by contrast, is a triumph of wonderfully inventive, yet sympathetic direction.

The imagery follows Messiaen’s knack for sophisticated simplicity. His ingenious idea of having children as an audience for the Saint’s ornithology lesson in The Sermon to the Birds is charming, while his imaginative treatment of the Angel is also a delight.

Audi also has a magnificent cast. Camilla Tilling has the stillness and purity needed for the Angel, Hubert Delamboye’s leper is vehement in railing against his misfortune, Henk Neven captures Frère Léon’s nervous caution perfectly and Tom Randle is wonderfully genial Frère Massée.

Most important of all, Rod Gilfrey radiates empathy in his portrayal of the exceptionally demanding title role. The kissing of the leper, for instance, can be an awkward affair, but is achingly beautiful here.

Ingo Metzmacher’s conducting is simply stunning, with marvellous pacing to keep the music flowing across the vast timescale, yet ensuring space and stillness when needed.

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With stunning surround sound, some useful extras and thoughtful presentation, this set simply cannot be praised too highly. Christopher Dingle