Déjà Review: this review was first published in April 2010 and the recording is still available.

Jules Massenet (1842-1912)
Thaïs (1894)
Thaïs – Renée Fleming
Athanaël – Thomas Hampson
Nicias – Michael Schade
Palémon – Alain Vernhes
Crobyle – Alyson Cambridge
Myrtale – Ginger Costa-Jackson
Guard – Trevor Scheunemann
La Charmeuse – Leah Partridge
Albine – Maria Zifchak
Cenobite monks – Daniel Clark Smith; Roger Andrews; Kurt Phinney; Richard Pearson; Craig Montgomery
Solo dancer: Zahra Hashemian
Violin solo: David Chan
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet/Jesus López-Cobos
Directed by Gary Halvorson
rec. live, 20 December 2008, Metropolitan Opera, New York
Decca 0743355 DVD [138]

The history of the cinema is full of short-lived fads. One of the very oddest has to have been a brief fashion in the mid-1910s for filming operas with well known divas in the starring roles – in what were, of course, “silent” films!

Thus, in 1915 audiences thrilled to Geraldine Farrar, directed by no less than Cecil B. DeMille, in a filmed version of Carmen that was, of necessity, entirely voicelessAnd just two years later, they could emote – if not actually sing along – with Mary Garden in her similarly mute portrayal of Thaïs – Madame Garden had actually taken the lead in the American premiere of Massenet’s opera and was a renowned interpreter of the composer’s soprano roles.

Audiences for Garden’s film would probably already have been quite familiar with its story, for the life of St Thaïs – an almost certainly mythical personage but one whose feast day is still celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church every 8 October – was a popular subject for contemporary writers, musicians and film-makers.

It had inspired not only a novel by Anatole France (1890) and Massenet’s opera (1894), but a play by the almost entirely forgotten Paul Wilstach (1911) and then a whole sequence of films. The (lack of) quality of the earliest, made in France in 1911 by Louis Feuillade, may be deduced from the fact that its director made no less than 89 other feature films in that same year. A Hollywood movie followed in 1914 and then two more in 1917 – Mary Garden’s version and an apparently rather avant-garde Italian production.

Modern viewers, living in a more secular world, may, however, be less familiar with the story – and even classical music buffs may know little more than the ubiquitous Méditation – yet may still be surprised to find that it is accompanied by a wordless chorus in its original stage manifestation.

In brief, Thaïs, “a corrupt priestess of the cult of Venus” in fourth century Roman Egypt and, we are led with minimal subtlety to infer, a high-class prostitute to boot, is turned from her wicked ways by the sanctimonious monk Athanaël. In fact, she is not only reformed but inspired to enter a convent. Athenaël subsequently realises that, in “saving” Thaïs, he has fallen in love with her. He rushes to the convent to release her from her vows and claim her for his own but, as he vainly attempts to convince her to return with him to the joys of the world, Thaïs dies in a vision of heavenly bliss, leaving the bereft monk utterly distraught.

Such a story offered plenty of opportunities for Victorian-era audiences to indulge in the moral hypocrisy that we now see as frequently characteristic of the times. They could ostensibly condemn the harlot but simultaneously derive a secret and illicit thrill from all the naughtiness exhibited before them on stage – quite literally so at the 1894 premiere of Massenet’s opera when a broken dress strap resulted in the unanticipated but dramatic exposure to presumably bemused theatregoers of leading lady Sybil Sanderson’s breasts.

Apart from its fascination with the concept of the Fallen Woman, the way in which the old medieval legend of St Thaïs was reinvented also offers yet another example of the anti-clericalism widespread in late 19th and early 20th century artistic circles. Whereas the traditional story had portrayed Athanaël as a holy figure, genuinely concerned for Thaïs’s redemption, Massenet, following France’s novel, makes it plain that beneath the surface he is tortured by sexual temptation and frustration. He thereby joins a list of clerical targets that includes the vengeful Grand Brahmin in Minkus’s La Bayadère, (1877), the lascivious Archdeacon of Paris in Franz Schmidt’s Notre Dame (1906) and the high priest Ramfis from Verdi’s Aïda (1871) who is probably best characterised as just plain nasty.

These days most of us will be far more likely to sympathise with the liberal moral philosophy of the lovely Thaïs – apostrophised by the chorus as “Rose of Alexandria! Beautiful, mysterious – desired by all!” – rather than the less than appealing manifesto espoused by the grim Athanaël: “mortification of the flesh – love of suffering – acts of penance”. And the score itself strongly implies – by giving the leading lady such ravishingly coloured melodies – that Massenet, an anti-clerical sympathiser himself, would have been on his heroine’s side of the argument too.

Renée Fleming first sang the role of Thaïs with Washington Concert Opera in 1991 and, in the subsequent two decades, honed her performance to the finest level. As she herself says in her interview with Placido Domingo on this DVD, the range of the role suits her voice and its silky, creamy tones perfectly – but let us not overlook the fact that Miss Fleming can also act. She may have been just a couple of months short of her 50th birthday at the time of this performance, but she is entirely convincing as a flirtatious and seductive courtesan for whom even a monk might risk his soul. She looks, moreover, as if she is genuinely enjoying her role and the final showy flourishes with which she rounds off her big arias justifiably have the audience at her feet.

Thomas Hampson’s role is far less glamorous. Indeed, in his first scene with his fellow monks in the desert it is positively dour – though it is thereby entirely in character. But his strong, authoritative voice dominates all others on stage except for that of Renée Fleming and, a big man to boot, he also has the strong physical presence that draws an audience’s eyes. The Fleming/Hampson partnership has already tackled Thaïs on a generally very well received CD set and I cannot see any lessening in the quality of either of the voices taking the leading roles on this new DVD.

As one might expect from the Met, this is not an especially radical production even though its setting has been shifted forwards by a millennium and a half. Clothing and props indicate that we are in the very era of the opera’s premiere – the fin de siècle – though still, it would appear in Egypt. That allows for some gorgeously elaborate costuming, of which the DVD cover gives an indication: Renée Fleming’s six dresses were designed by Christian Lacroix, no less. The stage sets are all quite functional, rather than especially elaborate, and do not distract from the action taking place on and around them. The only striking oddity occurs in the very final scene where, instead of placing the fatally ailing Thaïs on a horizontal deathbed as one might have expected, the nuns seem to have put her onto an uncomfortable-looking upright chair. Perhaps, though, they anticipated that she might want to sing a farewell duet with her adoring monk?

From the point of view of physical appearances, the subsidiary roles have been well cast. In the opening scene, Palémon, the leader of the community of Cenobite monks, is suitably biblical in appearance and, from certain angles, a dead ringer for Finlay Currie playing St Peter in the 1950s film Quo Vadis, which I guess is quite appropriate. His female counterpart, the quite generously-proportioned mother superior of Thaïs’s convent, certainly doesn’t look as if she leads an especially ascetic life but convinces nevertheless in a rounded Chaucerian manner. Tenor Michael Schade makes his character, Athanaël’s friend Nicias, into a suitably plump, well-fed and self-satisfied sybarite, and his sexual playthings, Crobyle and Myrtale, are convincingly seductive tarts – though most definitely down a peg or three in the whoring profession from Thaïs herself.

The Met orchestra plays very well throughout under Jesus López-Cobos’s flexible and sensitive direction. Concertmaster David Chan plays the Méditation violin solo quite exquisitely and fully deserves the roar of audience approval that he receives in his solo curtain call.

Gary Halvorson’s direction of the High-Definition film recording is generally fine. However, somewhere along the line the decision has been taken that viewers watching this production at home are to be treated rather differently from the audience in the opera house. The latter are left unmolested to suspend their disbelief and to engage fully in the story and its overwrought emotions – but the DVD doesn’t allow us to do that. Between virtually every scene the cameras go backstage to film the singers stepping out of character and exiting or coming on to the stage, while an army of stagehands laboriously shifts the scenery around them. The whole carefully-created mood and atmosphere established by the action on stage is thereby repeatedly disrupted. And, if that isn’t bad enough, one or two camera shots of the on-stage action are actually filmed from the wings so that we see the singers’ backs and, beyond those, the paying audience, reminding us that this is just, after all, a bit of staged theatre. That is taking the idea of Brechtian alienation several steps too far and results, at least for me, in a definite case of “more means less”.

Placido Domingo has been brought in to host the performance for us and lead us through the plot. He can, it has to be said, be a little gushing and luvvie-like at times – “only a very special soprano can sing the title role”, he opines – whoever can he be referring to? There are three extra “behind the scenes” segments on the DVD, though none is very substantial. In the first, Domingo chats generally to Renée Fleming as she heads for her dressing room. The second gives us a closer look at some of the elaborate costumes, one of which approximates, so it seems, to wearing a dress made out of papier-mâché. And in the third Thomas Hampson and Renée Fleming briefly discuss their roles with Domingo. Each could have been longer and more detailed but are pleasant and interesting enough, as well as giving us an opportunity to hear the artists in their real-life personae and using their normal, everyday voices.  

Rob Maynard

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