The Yomiuri ShimbunThe complete performance of the opera “Saint Francois d’Assise” in November will make a significant mark in the history of classical music performances in Japan. The epic by Olivier Messiaen, who died 25 years ago, will be conducted by Sylvain Cambreling, who spoke of his passion for the work at a press conference last autumn.
“It will be a huge challenge for us,” Cambreling said. “It’s a complex and monumental work that is very different from conventional operas. Still, I think the sound of the orchestra will draw the audience in, and they will have a precious experience of being immersed in the beautiful music.”
As he said this, Cambreling pointed to the eight volumes of the opera’s full score, which were stacked on top of a desk.
“They’re so tall,” he said with a laugh.
The opera will be performed twice in Tokyo as part of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra’s Subscription Concert series and the Popular Series. Cambreling’s eloquence spoke volumes about how eagerly he was awaiting the performance days.
“Saint Francois d’Assise,” Messiaen’s only opera, requires a massive force — an orchestra and a chorus of about 260 members. Playing through the work takes about 4½ hours. On a previous occasion, Seiji Ozawa conducted three scenes from the opera, which has three acts and eight scenes. The performance in an oratorio style with the New Japan Philharmonic is the only time the opera, in excerpts, has been performed in Japan.
Legend has it St. Francis preached to birds. The opera tells the story of the medieval Italian saint and the miracles attributed to him. Messiaen’s religious faith and piety is also expressed in the work.
Cambreling reiterates that the opera has universal appeal.
“St. Francis spread love to every natural being. I think [his faith] has more in common with the tenderness and respect Japanese people feel for nature than the Christianity-influenced faith in the West.”
Cambreling is well versed in the opera as he has conducted the work 24 times since 1992.
The opera starts with the words: “J’ai peur” (I am scared). In the end, this fear changes to joy, as sung by the chorus.
“The changes the characters go through are depicted by harmonic progressions as well,” Cambreling said. “It’s a special work. A certain magic occurs every time it is played.”
The score has various charms. The musical description of nature is filled with exultation, which is typical of Messiaen, who was fascinated by birdsong.
“Birdsong is very significant in this work, which includes more than 60 kinds [of birdsong]. There is an elaborate attempt to express each of them with instruments,” the conductor said.
The orchestral force, which weaves a richness of sound, is so huge that the stages at most venues are too small. The orchestra requires seven flutes, seven clarinets and three Ondes Martenots, a type of electronic music instrument. There are more than 40 types of percussion instruments as well.
“Messiaen had a strong obsession with beauty,” Cambreling said. “The colorful expressions of vivid beauty performed by the orchestra are characteristic [of this work].”
The opera will be performed in a concert style.
“Since the orchestra explains the drama with music, there is no need to elaborate with staging. The music can convey an immense amount,” Cambreling emphasized.
“You can call this a pinnacle of works with beautiful orchestral expressions. You’ll feel gentleness, subtlety, ephemeral qualities and compassion. There are also impressive moments when the music sounds like it is revisiting the past,” he said.Speech