The most ambitious work by 20th-century French master Olivier Messiaen
, Saint Francis
is also his most all-embracing. He spent nearly a decade creating the opera, which not only encapsulates the composer's abiding Catholic faith but draws on a lifetime of musical discovery and brings together the elements of Messiaen's far-ranging, rich vocabulary: birdsong and nature as a source for music, Eastern modes, complex rhythms derived from ancient Greek poetry and Hindu talas, plainsong, and percussive gamelan-like sonorities, to list a few of the most salient. Messiaen chose Francis for operatic representation as the saint "most like Christ" and wrote his own libretto, using the gentle poetry of the Fioretti
. The opera avoids dramatic tension but instead--almost ritualistically--portrays the "infusion of grace" through a series of encounters, including an angel playing music that offers a taste of heaven's bliss (marvelously orchestrated for ondes Martenot) and the famous scene of St. Francis preaching to the birds, in which Messiaen stacks multiple bird calls on top of each other in an inspired passage of "organized chaos."
This live recording was made during 1998's Salzburg Festival, and Kent Nagano (who had studied the work directly with Messiaen during the opera's premiere in 1983) marshals the score's 119 players and enormous chorus into a spectacular series of symphonic frescoes. He is sensitive both to the resonant use of silence in the score's interstices and--most memorably--to Messiaen's rare achievement in creating music to express "perfect joy." And the cast he works with is unbeatable: José van Dam conveys immense compassion and presence in the almost unbelievably strenuous demands of the title role, while Dawn Upshaw sings the angel with a penetrating purity. This masterpiece demands time to get to know it--more than the four hours it takes to unfold--but once you know it, its rewards are immense. --Thomas May