Saint François d'Assise - Nationaltheater Munich, 10 July 2011
When the Madrid Opera staged Saint François recently, they took over a sports stadium to accommodate the vast forces required. The Bavarian State Opera had only the middling-sized Nationaltheater, so the 100+ musicians spilled out into boxes and even on to the stage, where they sat on either side in stripy costumes that matched the cast's, big-band style.
This least theatrical of operas was never going to get a naturalistic production in any case. Hermann Nitsch, the Father Christmas lookalike who directed, is an artist known for his use of blood and evocation of ritual in his paintings and performance works. Sticking with his favoured preoccupations, he offered up crucifixion, ceremony and gallons of paint in the background, while the singers did their minimally-staged bit in front.
By the end I'd seen so many naked men tied to a cross with red paint poured over them (including one carried out horizontally between the rows of the stalls at the end of the first act) that the spectacle lost its shock impact. Which was perhaps the point. An oddly gentle spirit pervaded all, even the projections of massed hands rummaging through the intestines of animal carcases that accompanied the first act. It was no more savage than the sweetly childish projections of cutout bird pictures Nitsch placed behind the famous sermon to the birds.
For the final act, a dripping vertical painting of blood-red against white was slowly created to signify the appearance of the Saint's stigmata. Then huge canvases on the floor were doused in layers of paint by a team with buckets (see the rehearsal video below). The imagery, though crude and simplistic in execution, resisted equally straightforward interpretation. As does the opera itself, a series of brief vignettes from the Saint's life, undramatic in the extreme yet replete with spiritual significance.
Incomprehensibly, this beautiful and apposite staging earned its creator a hail of boos on its opening a few nights previously. I'm pleased to say there were nothing but cheers and applause this time round.
There was even greater applause for Kent Nagano, whose wonderfully translucent interpretation coloured the music precisely and harmoniously. Paul Gay as the stalwart Saint François and Christine Schäfer as the crystal-voiced angel stood out amongst a cast of all round excellence.
production photos (above) Wilfried Hösl
curtain call photos (below) intermezzo.typepad.com
Here are the painting rehearsals: