‘Saint François d’Assise’ by Olivier Messiaen in three audio recordings
Olivier Messiaen was a very religious man and most of his works revolve around the Christian faith. For his only opera, about St Francis, he also wrote the libretto, which he considered his personal declaration of faith and a kind of testament. This was at least as important to him as the music itself. He worked on it for seven years; the premiere took place in 1983, in Paris.
The performance, with José van Dam in the lead role and conducted by Seiji Ozawa was released on CD, on the Cybélia label, unfortunately the recording is very hard to find these days. YouTube offers solace, there you can listen to some of it (with images!).
Below is a fragment:
Two years later, in 1985, the opera was presented (albeit greatly shortened) in Salzburg, conducted by Lothar Zagrosek and featuring Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Francis, Rachel Yakar as the Angel and Kenneth Riegel as the Leper. It was broadcast live on ORF, and then released on Orfeo (C485 982).
In 1998, ‘Francis’ returned to Salzburg, this time complete. Kent Nagano (when he was still Ozawa’s assistant he had once rehearsed the opera under Messiaen himself) conducted, and the lead role was performed by the now very grown-up José van Dam, seconded by Dawn Upshaw (the Angel) and Chris Merritt (the Leper). The opera was recorded live during the performances and released on four CDs a year later, so we now have the only complete performance of this wonderful work on CD. (DG 4451762).
This recording is also on You Tube:
The performance is a very solid one. Chris Merritt does not possess the most beautiful voice in the world, but he doesn’t have to. He is supposed to come across as vulnerable and plaintive, and he succeeds superbly. Kenneth Riegel on the Orfeo recording is perhaps slightly more impressive, but you’re not going to buy the opera for one scene, though I myself like to have that recording alongside it.
Dawn Upshaw is a radiant, mercurial Angel, more esoteric than Rachel Yakar on Orfeo, and otherworldly beautiful. Fiescher-Dieskau had already retired in 1985, but agreed to rehearse the role of Francis (well, half of it). The result is certainly not bad, but for me it is very lacking in idiom, and he does not even come close to matching van Dam’s performance.
The music is very pleasant to listen to and it exudes a certain serenity, which cannot be attributed to the influence of the Gregorian chants alone. Occasionally reminiscent of Debussy’s Peleas and Melisande, Poulenc also comes quite close.
And Messiaen would not be Messiaen without the frequent use of the ondes Martenot (played on both editions by his sister-in-law, Jeanne Loriod), and without the chirping of birds.
Saint Francois d’Assis is an opera that lends itself beautifully to listening to on CD. It is a true masterpiece, but when it plays in the background only you will still enjoy it. You can read the synopsis, occasionally watch the dialogues (which may also be read beforehand, nothing much is happening anyway) and then you know it all. You can fold the laundry and listen to it just fine. Or just sit an