Messiaen’s “St-François d’Assise”

Paris Opéra Bastille
le 16 octobre 2004


St François at the Bastille

an account by KEN QUANDT

Birds perch together in large groups. Suddenly they bolt and soar. Sometimes we glimpse one through the leaves and branches, one with a red breast or one with a bright yellow comb. They sing what sound like many different songs. A good half of the melodic material in the music of Olivier Messiaen (1908 - 1992) comes from birdsong. This accounts for his idiosyncratic use of xylophones and the onde martenot with its electronic whoops and warbles. To judge from his only opera, and some say his greatest work, it could be said that Messiaen loved birds as St. Francis loved them.

St François d’Assise: Scènes Franciscaines en trois actes et huit tableaux has just finished a run at the Paris Bastille. The piece premiered in 1983 at the Paris Garnier. Performances since have been too rare. Its most famous mise en scène was designed by Peter Sellars for Salzburg in 1992, when Gerard Mortier had just assumed the directorship of that Festival after the epochal reign of Herbert von Karajan. The American premiere, appropriately in San Francisco, took place in 2002. Last year Mortier assumed the directorship of the Paris Opera, and he has brought the piece back to Paris for his inaugural season. The mise en scène designed for this production by Stanislas Nordey has brought the performance history of this opera to a new level.

Nordey has taken seriously the reference to tableaux in the opera’s subtitle. The “Franciscan Scenes” are to be presented “in three acts and eight tableaux:” the scenes are the tableaux and the tableaux are the scenes. The story of the opera will not be depicted as a series of actions but as a sequence of spiritual states. It is an inner story of the soul of St. Francis and the stages of its journey to God, grounded on a musical palette of birdsong leitmotifs. This story is revealed in a synoptic overview of the opera’s scenes, or tableaux.

In the First Scene Francis is walking along with anxious Brother Leo. Leo tells him he’s afraid, but suddenly a great insight flashes into Francis’s mind. The highest joy open to man comes not from mastering a science or the arts: these are gifts for which he has God to thank. No, the greatest joy available to man in himself comes from choosing to view misfortune, and particularly mistreatment by others, as an opportunity to bear with patience the pain Jesus experienced on the cross, and by feeling such pain to enjoy a deeper love for him. In the Second Scene it occurs to Francis, one day while at morning prayers, to add a thanks to God for the ugly things He has made and to ask for an opportunity to love the thing which he hates and fears the most — a leper. In the third he visits a leper in the infirmary. The leper is inconsolable, and angry. Some of his rage is pointed at the Brothers who shun him because of his disease. An Angel appears and tells them both that God loves the leper more than the leper loves himself. When the leper rejects this idea the first time, Francis repeats it and kisses him, and the leper is healed.

These three Scenes constitute the First Act.

The Fourth Scene begins the Second Act. The Angel arrives at the retreat of Francis and his Brothers, disguised as a young man. She asks a puzzling question to Brother Elias, the Vicar of the order, but he has no time for what he takes to be an insolent youth, and sends him packing. The Angel then asks the same question of Brother Bernard, who responds with humility and great beauty, and he asks in turn, half-knowing, who this young man might be. The Angel disappears. In Scene Five the Angel comes upon Francis in prayer and meditation. She plays her divine music for him with her strange viol, and he swoons. In the Sixth Francis and Brother Matthew are out in the country one day and come upon a great oak tree full of birds. They point out the birds to one another as fellow birders would, until suddenly Francis is struck by a new sense of a passage from Psalms. He calls out ecstatically to the birds and delivers a sermon to them about how their songs praise God with a praise that is beyond words. This last scene is almost an hour long. Its action consists in creating and then sustaining the ecstatic consciousness of Francis.

At the end of this Second Act we have time to reflect. Each scene has shown everyday life interrupted by an event that transfigures it. The moment of transfiguration becomes the goal of all that came before in the scene, as if a snapshot at just the right moment might capture the whole meaning of a life.

At the end of the Fifth Scene the Brothers had rushed up to Francis and revived him from his swoon. The music was so beautiful, he tells them, that if it had continued much longer he might not have had the strength to keep body and soul together. The tension introduced by beauty will not go away until we die; and, paradoxically, in rare moments, as Francis’s moment at the end of Scene Five, we feel that the tension will nearly kill us. We might not need to wait after all.

This paradox structures the Third Act, Scenes Seven and Eight. Scene Seven opens with Francis praying to be granted two more things before he dies: to feel the pain that Jesus felt upon the cross, and to feel the love that enabled him to hold up under the pain. The object of his new desire is a differentiated and refined version of the perfect joy he discovered in a flash during the First Scene. In response to his new prayer he immediately receives the stigmata — the five wounds of Jesus. That he feels the love that Jesus felt we can only imagine, and the music discreetly supplies the occasion to do so. The Eighth Scene opens with Francis saying goodbye to his Brothers, to the birds, and to his little church. The Angel arrives with the leper to be with Francis, and he dies.

Messiaen borrowed all these events from Franciscan literature and added his own embellishments. His libretto also consists largely of borrowings, much from the Bible but much else from sources as widely discrepant as Hans Urs von Balthasar and the forgotten mystic Ernest Hello. The resulting mix is always luminous despite its idiosyncrasy and often casts new light on old things. His stage directions are a different matter. In the 1983 premiere they were reproduced as accurately as possible and the opera was a failure. The Sellars production of 1992 started over with soaring scaffoldry and scores of television monitors sitting on the stage. Messiaen approved the new mise en scène but died before seeing it performed. Given this history Nordey was free to create a very different setting without necessarily courting controversy.

Nordey set the action of the first three tableaux or scenes on a square platform placed in the middle of the stage, rotated so that its corner is at the front, and tilted up slightly. On this diamond the characters move from corner to corner between stanzas. In the first scene the plateau is barely visible because of the lighting; in the second we see the plateau but think it is black. In the third, the scene with the Leper, we discover from fuller illumination that it is white. The effect includes making the platform more salient as such, but also suggests the light of day dawning.

The Second Act opens outside the retreat house, with the approach of the Angel in disguise. A large vertical square about the size of the platform in the First Act represents the wall of the building. It is green as if ivy-covered. When the Angel asks her puzzling and elaborate question to Brother Elias, the words themselves appear on the wall. This striking apparition suggests the use of words in altar pieces for thoughts affecting the souls of persons depicted in them. Here the words stay through the questioning and answering of Brother Bernard. The next scene, in which the Angel plays her viol and Francis swoons, opens with an even more impossible image. There is a large vertical square in the center of the stage, grass-green and shaggy as if covered with lawn, and Francis is “on” it. If it were a picture he would be “in” the center of the picture, standing. One immediately wonders and can hardly see what he is standing on that keeps him elevated eight feet up from the stage. The Angel appears near him moving upward as if through a pocket in the grass. In the last scene the words of the Angel’s question became objects written on the wall as on a tablet. In this scene the Francis becomes an object in a tableau. The act ends with Scene Six, the Sermon to the Birds. A square scaffold stands on the stage. Francis is up in the center of it in a sort of pulpit. The pulpit is braced in position by supplementary vertical and horizontal scaffolding that suggests a cross. At the Bastille, the three ondes martenots were placed in the house. Francis and Matteo are birding the audience, and the sermon to the birds is delivered to us.

In the course of the last act the vertical element had achieved an almost vertiginous sense of ecstasy. As the curtain rises on Scene Seven, the first scene of Act Three, Francis is again upon a square, and again at the intersection of a set of vertical and horizontal lines like the pattern on the scaffolding. But the square is just a black panel. It is flanked on both sides by panels of the same size with the same cruciform lines, one green like the panels in Act Two, and one white like the platform in Act One. The side panels are rotated inward slightly, like the outer crosses on Calvary. Beneath we see the chorus, their heads only, facing us, dimly lit. Mr. Nordey has created an altar triptych with horizontal predella beneath. When Francis receives the stigmata bands of red radiate outward from his sides: The panel is not black after all but transparent, and there are invisible painters behind with rollers full of red paint. The scene is over when the square is fully saturated in red.

This tableau culminates all that came before, as Francis’s receiving the stigmata was the culmination of his own spiritual growth. It is left for him to die, and that is the action of the Eighth Scene. Francis is kneeling on the stage facing the audience. Four panels are leaning against the back wall of the stage as if it were a warehouse — the red one, the green one, the white one, and a fourth inscribed with the words of the Angel’s question. Nordey has placed us in the backstage of the iconographic world, where the actual Francis will now die among his friends. He leaves the audience to wonder a little where they might be going next.

We learn about Francis’s final days from the testimony of his Brothers collected in the Franciscan literature. He was weak from the stigmatic wounds, which never healed and always bled. He was nearly blind, they said, from continually weeping in thanks for the visions of beauty granted him in prayer.

The six hours of orchestral birdsong, the poetic song of the libretto, and the vertiginous phantasms of Nordey’s setting, prepare us well for the last words Francis is given to sing: “Lord! Lord! Music and poetry have led me to Thee: by symbol, by image, and in default of truth. Deliver me, enrapture me, dazzle me forever by Your excess of truth!”