Despite the sweltering summer heat in Madrid, a prestigious crowd gathered to see the opening performance of Massiaen’s Saint François d’Assise. It has been touted as one of the most significant cultural events of 2011. Queen Sofia of Spain, the Minister of Culture, the city’s archbishop, the mayor, along with a crowd of others on the list of Madrid’s “who’s who”. This eminent audience who flocked to the edge of the city at the theatre’s summer residence at the Madrid Arena gave the evening an immediate sense of gravitas.
This sporting arena does not suit opera. The silver bleachers, despite being covered in black padding, are still bleachers. It felt strange to have ¾ of the audience (what would normally be in the round) empty. And table cloths were placed over the areas where normally beer and other spectator sport food is served.
Massiaen’s only opera premiered in Paris 1983, so is relatively contemporary in operatic terms. The gargantuan work, running nearly 6 hours in total, is a well-known favourite of Teatro Real’s Belgian Artistic Director, Gerard Mortier. The celebrated and renowned director has included the piece in every programme for which he has been in charge.
This production was originally meant to be presented at New York City’s Armory during which time Mr. Mortier was meant to be the director of the new York Opera, however after a lack of fundraising and therefore funds, he chose to settle his artistic perch in Madrid instead. As a director, Mortier takes risks and pushes the boundaries. He is a gift to the operatic stages of our time.
This oratorio based opera consists of 8 scenes from the saint’s life. The piece is enormous: 6 hours in length, an orchestra of over 120 musicians, an enormous percussion section by operatic standards, and a chorus of 150 voices. It is truly an opera of operatic proportions. While appreciating the skill and musicianship of the composition, the work is repetitive and at times obvious. In particular, the repeated thee of the same melody playing before a character sings becomes rather dull. Messiaen also lacks the dramatic undertone which so often spurs opera along their arching plot.
One cannot help but ponder how a crafty and well-thought cut could enhance this lengthy and at times tiresome experience. Unless of course the aim as an operatic “Einstein on the Beach”?
The stage was mostly encumbered by Emilia and Ilya Kabakov’s 22 tonne dome decorated with stained glass and tilted onto its side. It is a gargantuan, imposing piece. Although it fills this arena space, it feels static and at times irrelevant. The shifting colours felt arbitrary. The performers were confined to a narrow metal walkway that surrounded the musicians.
The orchestra was led by the Messiaen-specialist Sylvain Cambreling. This is an extremely complicated score and, as many contemporary pieces are, difficult to follow. Cambreling led with clear direction and the necessary confidence to convincingly perform such a challenging piece. The SWR Baden-Baden – Freiburg Symphony Orchestra did well to fill the huge arena and to accommodate such an imposing percussion section.
Marco-Buhrmester gave a magnificent performance as Saint Francois, however the length of the piece would be trying for any performer. It lacked focus. Camilla Tilling, the only female in this cast, was an angel with an ethereal voice who emerged from the cast iron bleachers. Her voice pierced the space and kept the audience mesmerized.
However the plot felt thin. To keep an audience’s rapt attention for such an extended time. Messiaen failed to provide enough texture and richness to this piece in order to warrant the required devotion. And it showed. Yet despite the audience noticeably diminishing in size after each intermission, the crowd that remained upon the final curtain call was sizeable and enthusiastic.