For the San Francisco Opera to undertake Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise – as the American stage première of the opera  now 19 years old – represented an act of faith several times over: above all the faith of Pamela Rosenberg’s new management that an audience coddled on easy-listening new operas (Dead Man Walking, A Streetcar Named Desire, etc.) might be lured further into unknown territory with a work genuinely one-of-a-kind and challenging. The circumstances were favorable – to a point, at least: Where better, after all, to produce an opera about Saint Francis than in the city bearing his name? Even so, the word was out and daunting, concerning a five-hour confrontation with music mostly slow, in an opera with few singing roles and little stage action. San Francisco’s September 27 premiere, the first of five performances, drew a distinguished sell-out crowd; before the long night’s end, however, blocks of empty seats were visible throughout the house.

The opera has fared reasonably well over the years, certainly beyond the expectations of those (this writer included) attending the helter-skelter 1983 premiere at the Paris Opéra. Productions in Berlin and Salzburg, and a DG recording under Kent Nagano’s sure baton, have eased its path. The opera is still hard to love, however. Over its vast time-scale  we are invited to observe, without much in the way of confirming incident – the healing of the Leper aside — the growth in spirit and wisdom of Assisi’s legendary saint, his rise above the lesser spirits among his co-believers,  his communion with Nature’s other creatures, most of all her birds. Birds, birds, birds: For something like forty-five minutes – one-half the length of Act Two —  the saintly Messiaen proclaims his own kinship with the saintly Francis in this matter of ornithological passion. One fidgets, vainly  waiting for the feathered, clattering, chattering hordes to get baked into a pie or, at least, to fly the coop.

There are few  surprises in Messiaen’s  orchestra here, except  for its sheer exuberance in the marshalling of his usual massed, apocalyptic brass, the urgent summonings of clattering mallet instruments,  and no fewer than three (three!) of his iconic noisemakers, the wailing, throbbing keyboards known as the Ondes Martenot, now doing service in Movieland (Mad Max, My Left Foot). Around and above all of this – and truly surprising – is the choral writing, the dense chording of semitones and microtones. In San Francisco’s extraordinary production, a congruence occurs between the deep and expansive choral texture and the visual effect of singers on a slow turntable seeming to  fill an entire world with their presence and their sound. Over-all it is texture, more than melody and harmony (which here – as elsewhere  in the Messiaen oeuvre – borders on the banal and, now and then, crosses the line) that earns the most admiring attention in this ecstatic yet sporadically off-putting score.

José van Dam had pretty much owned the title role since the 1983 premiere; ownership has now passed, in glory, to Willard White. Aside from that title role, that of an attendant Angel — set forth by Laura Aikin with irresistible, athletic charm – and some stupendous vocal athletics for Chris Merritt as the Leper, Saint François is not a singer’s paradise. Its strengths derive mostly from the tight interweave  of its complex  linearity. It fell to Donald Runnicles, the company’s music director and the most significant holdover from the previous administration, to bind this all together in a performance taut  and rapturous that could, at least, simulate the effect of forward motion as the music itself remains existentially still.

Nicolas Brieger’s production began with silent film: Assisi’s great St. Francis Basilica brutally damaged by the recent earthquake. St. Francis’ story, as he told it, unfolded in both the distant past and only yesterday.  Hans-Dieter Schaal’s stage built on the recent horror; pieces of ruined crosses lay everywhere, extending menacingly out toward the audience, with Francis’ rude cave abutting a modern three-story office building. Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s costumes were also of no time and every time; the more earthly of the Franciscan brothers toted bookkeeping ledgers  and sported modern-day fedoras  above their priestly robes. Under Alexander Koppelmann’s  lighting a soft grey luminosity covered everything,  and the colors that pierced through – a gorgeous blue streak that resolved into the Angel (complete with sunglasses) of Francis’ dreaming – created their own astonishment.

This is San Francisco’s first season actually planned from  Pamela Rosenberg’s new leadership, Of the new productions on her agenda, Saint François has, naturally, gotten the most notice; the production team  includes colleagues from her German years.  “Animating Opera” is the title Rosenberg has concocted for the repertory for the first years of her regime, already announced through 2006. Under that rubric individual operas are further clumped and titled; the brochure reads like a college course catalog. Whether Saint François is, as the brochure reads, a “Seminal Work of Modern Times” is, however,  arguable; it seems more like a particularly  interesting dead end. Rosenberg’s plan, fancy titles and all, is the work of a creative general director willing to integrate serious musical thinking into the entertainment  value of the product.  Yet a question lingers: is the stature of “seminality” adequate justification for a work’s survival in the repertory? Perhaps time will tell, but the five-plus slow-moving hours of Saint François d’Assise constitute a potent argument to the contrary.

Otherwise, San Francisco’s first month offered a revival (from 1993) of David Hockney’s dazzling designs for Turandot, their blatant firecracker-redness a violent contrast to St. Francis’ prevailing  grays. Jane Eaglen was the Turandot, Patricia Racette the Liù, both predictably splendid; Alfred Reiter and Jon Villars, both in adequate but unremarkable San Francisco debuts, were the wandering father and amorous son. Runnicles’ conducting, this one time, seemed weary – understandable, perhaps, sandwiched in between the dress rehearsal and première of the Messiaen. From the Chicago Lyric came John Cox’s attractive Ariadne auf Naxos production, beautifully shaped under newcomer Jun Märkl’s baton, and lit by Deborah Voigt’s two-edged command as the imperious Prima Donna and the tragedy-drenched Ariadne and by the stratospheric luminosity of Laura Claycomb’s Zerbinetta.  – ALAN RICH

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