Prom 70: Messiaen's Saint-François d'Assise - Royal Albert Hall, 7 September 2008
Unquestionably the best Prom of the season - by a mile - in fact the best Prom I've ever been to. Messiaen's operatic meditation on the life of St Francis of Assisi is four and half hours of the most astonishing musical invention, here realised vividly and passionately by the Netherlands Opera.
Why the 'experts' in the pre-performance talk (supposedly playing for team Messiaen) felt the need to join the consensus and apologise for its length and supposed lack of pace I don't know. They seemed embarrassed about the limited enthusiasm they did show. This sort of dispassionate cynicism may constitute a legitimate perspective on the work from an academic viewpoint, but with barely a quarter (if that) of the seats sold, what it really needed instead was some good old-fashioned cheerleading from a point of authority.
There may not be a lot going on in the text, but there's a musical narrative more gripping and eventful than anything I've ever heard, teeming with detail. Messiaen worked on it for many years and the result is a work that despite its length and colossal orchestration is shorn of any excess. Every detail fits as neatly as a leaf on a tree.
Conductor Ingo Metzmacher marshalled his huge orchestral forces heroically. There were ondes Martenot tucked away in the side balconies, and a massive choir too. And despite some the odd late entry or rough patch - nothing less than you'd get from any orchestra over half a day of solid playing - there was never the sense that they were playing with anything less than total commitment.
The strange and beautiful 'Angel's viol' music, exquisitely realised on the ondes Martenot and a cluster of strings and winds was a magical highlight in the middle of the work. St Francis's sermon to the birds, with its streaming concatenation of orchestrally-simulated birdsong, was, despite the 'experts' pre-show warnings, fascinating in its dense complexity. And the mighty, blinding, deafening finale exploded with all the joy and profound faith Messiaen had brought to it.
The marvellous, minimalist staging, just a few benches and crude crosses set in front of the orchestra, was enough to suggest the events occuring. More importantly, it provided a context for the wonderful soloists to create their roles.
The voice of Rod Gilfry, as St Francis, started to give out towards the end of the second act, but this was covered by some sympathetic volume from Metzmacher, and barely detracted from a moving and authoritative performance that derived its intensity from its stillness.
The simple black and white costumes mostly worked, and though Heidi Grant Murphy resembled the Dental Hygienist of the Lord in her all-white ensemble, the sweetness and purity of her voice raised her Angel to the heavens.
It's a shame so few people made the trip to see it, but the few hundred who were there gave it a louder and definitely more heartfelt reception than many full-house concerts. It desperately needs to be staged in this country again - and soon.