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Saint François d'Assise

A review by Tom Reed

San Francisco Opera's production of Saint François d'Assise is an phenomenal work that lies in the crossroad where physical and spiritual crash head-on. Olivier Messiaen's composition can be described as an aggregate of synesthetic decitalasive chronochromatic avoided non-retrogradable Greco-Hindu cadences over divergent stretti of contrapuntal avian quodibets employing serial exoauthentic hyperplagal modes in disjunct converse hemitonial approximaturas against conjoined inverted homophonic octahedra of unparallel asymmetric simul-syncronous enharmonic endurational protocambiatic permutatiae in Mixo-Hypokavorkian Mode. But I oversimplify.

The orchestration is astonishing. In his youth Mozart once gained admission to a prestigious music school by composing a piece that was equally beautiful when played as written, or with the music turned upside down. But the genius of Messiaen is that at any time, any member of the orchestra can play his music upside down without even being noticed! When played on the piano the score seems more Brocal than Cortical, like the way we used to play before our parents forced us to take lessons. But with augmented orchestra it comes alive in dazzling spectra of synesthesial color.

Messiaen of course was himself a synesthete, which is to say he saw colors when he heard music. Though technically a neuropsychological condition, synesthesia now seems destined to become the new rage, eclipsing even trance channeling and chakral realignment. You don't suffer from synesthesia? Not to worry. The Lighting Department has it all worked out for you. Messiaen employs every possible combination of sound and color to transform the carnal to the sublime. His linkage of divergent themes in counterpoint is nothing short of revelation. To the uninitiated, one passage might create the mistaken musical impression of a steam locomotive slamming into the pearly gates. Another might suggest a group of monks on a low-fiber diet chanting plainsong to whales and xylorimbas on tumble dry. The truly mystically myopic might even liken one passage to Stravinsky during a bad bathroom experience. But they miss the point. It is through the convulsions of seemingly opposing forces that Messiaen gradually tips the scale from material to ethereal.

To fully appreciate this opera one should be well acquainted with the concept of mystical martyrdom. Before attending, patrons may wish to read up on the subject, starting with the Baltimore Catechism and ending with the mystical works of the great spiritual evolutionist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.... unless of course those patrons happened to attend parochial school before 1965, where spiritual martyrdom was not just a concept, but a way of life.

The costumes have been ingeniously designed to facilitate the performers' participation in the mystical experience. The head-to-foot airtight rubber burqas provide a cloistered environment, not unlike wearing one's own portable hermitage. From inside, each chorister may just faintly glimpse the outside world through a mask of dense nylon mesh. Thus sheltered from the crush of the other 109 choristers on stage, they find themselves in the perfect pre-natal environment conducive to spiritual rebirth, where each may contemplate mystical crucifixion in darkness and solitude at a constant and unchanging 98.6 degrees.

The rich symbolism of this production may tempt the intellect, but it must be remembered that the mystical state can not be fully appreciated synaptically. It must be experienced. Director Nicolas Brieger skillfully exploits the distinction between material and spiritual through the opposing properties of pigment and light, just as black results from the combination of all color pigments, while white is achieved by combining all colors of light. His production transports the audience through every step of the journey from material darkness to celestial brilliance, culminating in the blinding white of C Major. And after five hours in Mixandmatchian Mode it is astounding just how uplifting a simple C Major chord can be! To go is to know.