Birds and Brothers: Saint François d’Assise at the Staatstheater Darmstadt

Messiaen – Saint François d’Assise

L’Ange – Katharina Persicke
Saint François – Georg Festl
Le Lépreux – Mickael Spadaccini
Frère Massée – David Lee
Frère Élie – Michael Pegher
Frère Léon – Julian Orlishausen
Frère Bernard – Johannes Seokhoon Moon
Frère Sylvestre – Werner Volker-Meyer
Frère Rufin – Tom Schmidt

Darmstädter Kantorei, Mitglieder des Rhein-Main Kammerchores, Der Opernchor des Staatstheaters Darmstadt, Das Staatsorchester Darmstadt / Johannes Harneit.
Stage director – Karsten Wiegand.

Two firsts for me tonight – my first visit to the Staatstheater Darmstadt and my first ever Saint François d’Assise.  It’s a work that one doesn’t get to see very often.  The demands on the large orchestra are immense, requiring a level of rhythmic precision over the course of the five-hour evening that can tax even the strongest of bands.  It also calls for a large chorus able to negotiate some very tricky harmonies.  The vocal writing is generally quite grateful for the principals, although the length is certainly extreme for the bass-baritone in the title role – especially when he has to pull out some very high declamatory writing at the very end.  That a small regional theatre, such as Darmstadt, can take it on shows a level of immense ambition.  It’s an attractive house, with great sightlines throughout.  Remarkably, despite having one thousand seats, a considerable section of the central auditorium – prime audience real estate – was roped off to be used by the chorus in Act 3, and also provided a location for Saint François to address his sermon to the birds from within the public.

Photo: © Stephan Ernst

The staging was the work of Karsten Wiegand, the intendant of the house.  He achieved so much with relatively little.  The supersized orchestra was situated at the back of the stage on a hydraulic platform that rose and descended at various times.  The action took place over where the orchestra pit would normally be located.  A set of portable panels were used for video projections – at one point offering a visual coup as the Ange transformed the paintings displayed on them simply by breathing on them.  Another visual coup came in the sermon to the birds, with projections of countless birds projected on to the stage, as well as the walls and ceiling of the auditorium.  This resourcefulness was undoubtedly a strength of Wiegand’s direction.  Saint François d’Assise is a rather static work.  Not much especially happens – rather we witness a series of related scenes.  In that regard, it didn’t feel that we especially got to know the characters – but that is more a feature of the work rather than Wiegand’s direction of it.

Photo: © Stephan Ernst

The Bavarian baritone, Georg Festl, brought a warm and burnished bass-baritone to the title role.  He was a very handsome stage presence and moved with haunting stature, his upright demeanour seemingly reflecting a man not quite of this world.  His diction wasn’t the clearest, unfortunately, which distracted a little from his portrayal with several of the diphthongs cloudy.  He was absolutely tireless, despite an exceptionally long evening and sang with dignity throughout, never compromising on the beauty of the tone.

Photo: © Stephan Ernst

The Ange was sung by Katherine Persicke in a light and easily-produced soprano.  Words appeared to be optional for the most part, unfortunately.  She was however an energetic and engaging presence on stage.  Mickael Spadaccini sang the Lépreux with generous force.  As the sole francophone in the cast, the Walloon tenor’s diction was excellent.  His impassioned delivery meant that the tone tended to rawness at times and the vibrations were slightly loose on top.  His acting was gripping, making his scene a moment of visceral power.

Photo: © Stephan Ernst

The remainder of the cast was satisfying.  Julian Orlishausen was a handsomely-voiced Frère Léon, his masculine baritone giving much pleasure.  David Lee’s Frère Massée was sung in an attractive, well-placed tenor.  Michael Pegher’s Frère Élie made a strong impression thanks to his peppery character tenor and clarity of text.  Johannes Seokhoon Moon’s Frère Bernard also stood out thanks to his rich and resonant bass as well as good diction.

Photo: © Stephan Ernst

The house chorus, augmented with guests from the Darmstädter Kantorei and Rhein-Main Kammerchor, gave a very strong performance.  Ensemble was extremely tight – remarkably so given that often they had no sight of the conductor.  They had clearly been very well rehearsed and prepared by no fewer than five chorus masters.  The tone was big and rich but what was more impressive was in their sepulchral soft singing, impeccably tuned.  In Act 3, singing from within the audience, they filled the house with silvery tone.  Regrettably it did affect balance as it rendered the orchestra inaudible, from my seat at least, and it meant that we lost the full impact of Messiaen’s rainbow of tonal colours.

Photo: © Stephan Ernst

The house band, conducted by their music director Johannes Harneit, played with assurance.  Some of the higher string writing was on the scrappy side – but this kind of thing is inevitable on a first night.  They played this unfamiliar score with great confidence.  Indeed, the lightness of the transparent string textures in the middle of Act 2 and the presence of the three ondes Martenot created a ravishing sound world.  I must admit I did find Harneit’s conducting a bit on the metronomic side.  He kept strong control of his forces at all times, but perhaps at the expense of an approach that could have allowed a more organic, improvisatory spirit to the orchestral writing.

Photo: © Stephan Ernst

That said, this Saint François d’Assise is a major achievement for the house and definitely rewards their ambition for taking it on.  The staging was ideally married to the static nature of the piece – it illustrated and reflected the work’s fragmented nature.  Musically, we were introduced to some very fine voices in the house ensemble.  For Festl in particular, this was a powerful statement of intent to his stature as a highly promising young artist.  An evening that the house can justifiably be proud of.

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