September 20, 2002
Deutsche Oper Berlin

Messiaen's epic, otherworldly St. Francois


Olivier Messiaen
Saint François d'Assise


Deutsche Oper Berlin
Musikalische Leitung: Marc Albrecht
Inszenierung, Bühne & Kostüme: Daniel Libeskind
Chöre: Ulrich Paetzholdt/Hellwart Matthiesen

Ofelia Sala, Frode Olsen, Ralf Willershäuser, Markus Brück, Todd Wilander, Volker Horn, Peter Klaveness, Miomir Nikolic, Roland Schubert

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Messiaen's epic, otherworldly St. Francois

by Nancy Chapple

Premiered in June of this year and now playing in repertory, the Deutsche Oper's production of Messiaen's only opera deploys an orchestra of 159 instrumentalists, 156 singers, and lasts almost five and a half hours from first note to thunderous final applause. The sold-out hall remained concentrated throughout the performance. The evening had two stars - Ofelia Sala as the Angel and Frode Olsen as St. Francis, though Ralf Willershäuser as the Leper and Markus Brück as Brother Léon were also vocally impressive.

From the start Frode Olsen as Francois was entirely credible vocally, convincing to watch in his facial play. The Angel appears in Scene 3: Ofelia Sala's voice was clear, high, with very little vibrato, sometimes piercing given the register yet completely on pitch. She was a treasure - her movements, energy, purity, the beatific smile. Her French diction was the best of the cast, which often did not clearly pronounce Messiaen's French libretto. The audience relied on the sensitively translated German-language surtitles.

The success of the complex work depends equally on the quality of the singers and the orchestra. The musical demands were beautifully served by conductor Marc Albrecht, later called to the stage for as many bows as the soloists. Particularly wonderful were the marvelous sixth scene where Francis shows Léon the language of the birds, in which the orchestra was completely on, and the moving orchestration supporting si tu portes de bon coeur la Croix ... in the 7th scene. The only unpleasant moment came in scene 3 when the brasses were unsatisfyingly sharp at the leper's climax.

Act II takes us through an entire transformation. The sixth scene was the musical climax and heart of the piece, though not the religious / emotional one, which is at the work's end. An inexplicable tension arises in both scenes 6 and 8: they seem perfect and intolerably long at the same time. With this work we clearly need to learn to listen differently, with less drive to arrive at the end. In scene eight - the final scene - we have the sensation there will be many endless phases of dying and going to heaven, until we arrive rather suddenly at the absolutely incredible last note!

Much of the complex choreography is jerky and not easy to grasp. Although perhaps fitting to the repeated, mosaic-like musical fragments out of which the entire opera is constructed, it tends to distract from the work's overall message. Individuals spun around on their axes, apparently to imply freedom from human conventions of movement, but they were visually merely unsettling. The visual emphasis on how the singers and choir move on the stage is all the greater in this work as there are no spontaneous emotional interactions among the players.

The set and costumes were designed by Daniel Libeskind, architect of Berlin's new Jewish Museum. The set consists of 7x7 anthracite cubes, ranged equally at a slant across the back two thirds of the stage. The lighting on them changes; the cubes themselves turn, seemingly at random, with varying decorations on top. One of the sets of decorations are printer's letters, written backwards to form saints' names. The structure is reminiscent of the 49 pillars of the Museum's Garden of Exile. The decorations on the monks' and angel's robes, lines that appear parallel but ultimately diverge, crossed by not quite perpendicular lines, are also reminiscent of the museum's architecture. Though Yvonne Loriod, Olivier Messiaen's widow, saw it differently in an open letter to Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ("Need it be emphasized that what is important to me is a production that gets the gist of the spiritual statement intended very seriously and earnestly by Messiaen, not merely spelling out individual stage directions? Libeskind has clapped his scenic directives onto my husband's work without a recognizable relationship."), the set ultimately seemed of secondary importance, neither disturbing nor adding much. Instead, the audience reveled in the lush music in ascetic surroundings and in the otherworldly spiritual atmosphere of Olivier Messiaen's Saint Francois d'Assise.

(This review originally appeared at