Ever since reading Michael Linton’s adulatory review of Olivier Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise, I have wished to see it.
Messiaen is an enigma to me. Unlike certain speedy critics, I cannot dismiss his experimental style as obscurantist and irrelevant. Neither can I claim to understand it.
That is, I think, part of its point. Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, from what little I know, tries to depict the Apocalypse by transforming musical tempo. When well-formed, the work induces in the listener perplexity and astonishment, thus foreshadowing what one might feel when God strikes the stage of the world.
Witnessing divine intervention, one can only wonder and adore.
Messiaen’s Quartet certainly produces a marvelous wonder, but one can find another near-epiphany in a performance of the composer’s opera about St. Francis, scenes from which now grace the internet courtesy of YouTube.
The scene in question very touchingly shows St. Francis of Assisi’s transformative encounter with a leper. Messiaen wrote the libretto himself, but here the music takes back-seat to the words and the actions of the performers.
Here the taste for wonder is inflamed by a question only a saint can provoke:
What would drive a man to embrace a leper?
Watch, and marvel:
(My translation, a poor libretto, follows beneath the embedded video.)
Leper: What did he say? I don’t understand.
St. Claire (?) : He said: Your heart accuses you,
but God is far greater than your heart.
But God is all love.
And he who abides
He abides in God,
And God abides in him.
(Title: and the Leper comes restored…)
Leper: Father, forgive my endless recriminations.
Those brothers of yours, they call me “The Leper.”
St. Francis: Where do you find sadness for yourself,
When I sing joy?
Leper: I know being hideous well,
I have the same revulsion at myself!
St. Francis: Where do you find fault,
If I open the way to Truth?
Leper: But you are good.
You call me “friend, brother, son”
St. Francis: Where do they find the darkness,
If I bear the Light?
I have not loved you enough.