It’s a Finnegan’s Wake, literature beyond words. Like Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia, architecture beyond building. Olivier Messiaen’s grand conception of a dramatic poem celebrating the spiritual quest of St. Francis reaches beyond any human scale. Twenty-five years ago, a young Kent Nagano assisted Messiaen in the first Paris production of this monumental piece, the culminating work of the French composer’s career.
The first Canadian performance by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal earlier this month was only the second in North America, bringing the conductor back to a central inspiration of his career. The love Nagano feels for Messiaen’s music could be felt in the energy that drove the orchestra’s performance of this strangely medieval contemporary work.
So much is demanded of the orchestra and of the additional instrumentalists and chorus, so much in the sheer length of this oratorio/opera, that one wonders how St. Francis (Marc Barrard) could keep singing for five hours, the orchestra playing, the conductor delicately weaving dreams and space travel, debates about predestination and the surrender of self, and the birdsongs. And so much is demanded of the audience that I found myself constantly trying to grasp the nature of this beast, this endurance test for all in the service of the friar’s epic of spiritual quest and redemption.
Resistances of various kinds had to be overcome (memories of my own Catholic formation among them, the tone of preaching, the ease of evading the suffering of others for a higher goal, and so on) – but I was won over by the sheer exuberance of both Messiaen’s vision and Nagano’s interpretation.
Digital images displayed on a huge screen just above the orchestra were an integral part of the Montreal production. Below the English and French texts, close-up images of the singers could have turned the spectacle into a kind of political convention hall, and some superimposed natural images did come too close to being postcards of the Umbrian landscapes. Yet overall, the blending of colour and sound was thrilling. The kaleidoscopic merging of organic and abstract patterns and the dream-like dissolving of colour seemed to be miraculously attuned to the moods and movements of the music. This was a risky innovation, which irritated those members of the audience who wanted to listen to the music without imposed visual “translations”; but this additional medium brought us inside nature and out into the space-time continuum in a way very much in the spirit of Messiaen’s vision.
Outside the concert hall was Montreal’s first winter storm of snow and freezing rain; inside was a sublime victory for Messiaen and Nagano. Its scale and energy left me feeling that I had been taken beyond the physical and the human world, of orchestra and audience, into Messiaen’s world of faith and universal harmony, into the “music of the invisible.”
Denis Sampson lives and writes in Montreal and Ireland. Author of a literary biography of Brian Moore, he is now working on a biographical study of Irish novelist John McGahern.
IMAGE: The Ecstasy of St. Francis of Assisi: The Vision of the Musical Angel by Francisco Ribalta, circa 1620-1625. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford CT/ The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund/ Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.