Jules Massenet (1842-1912)
Thaïs (1892-1894, revised 1898)
Comédie lyrique in Three Acts and Seven Scenes
Erin Wall – Thaïs (soprano); Joshua Hopkins – Athanaël (Baritone); Andrew Staples – Nicias (tenor); Palémon – Nathan Berg (Bass); Crobyle – Liv Redpath (soprano); Myrtale – Andrea Ludwig (mezzo); La Charmeuse – Stacey Tappan (soprano); Albine – Emilia Boteva (mezzo)
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. live, 4-9 November 2019, Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Canada
Chandos CHSA5258(2) SACD [2 discs: 132]

This SACD recording was released in mid-2020 and somehow I missed receiving a copy of it to review at that time. It has lately come into my collection and I think enough of this recording to contribute my thoughts on it to the MusicWeb review archive.

In his review of this same release Ralph Moore gave as succinct a summation of the fascination of this opera as I have yet come across, therefore; I quote it here:

The dynamic of the opera gains interest via the spectacle of the two main characters on diametrically opposed trajectories which could intersect but never do, as they pass each other by en route: the professional trollop feels the pull to abandon her dissolute lifestyle and embrace piety while the Man of God comes to acknowledge that his repressed sexual desire, once released, quashes his pietistic fervour. She aspires to spiritual serenity while he descends into carnal frustration; hedonism and asceticism can never be bedfellows.

Louis Gallet’s streaming prose libretto and Jules Massenet’s smoldering score produce a desert melodrama of no little impact. Indeed, this is among the very best of Massenet’s operas after Manon and Werther. Massenet was the master of mood painting, and even more, he had a unique ability to write music that conveyed a continuously shifting emotional mood. In Thaïs, the mood shifts as often as the desert sands of the scenery. What this opera needs in order to get all of this across are two lead singers with true magnetism aided by a conductor who can drive the score along but balancing it always with enormous sensitivity.

Julius Rudel (in his 1974 recording for RCA) is the one conductor who in my experience had those perfect combination of qualities which brought Thaïs to life. On this live recording from Toronto, Andrew Davis proves himself to be the near equal of Rudel. He manages the shifting sands of Massenet’s orchestration superbly, knowing when to press things forward and when to ease into expansiveness. Massenet managed to evoke the vast desert spaces in a few brief orchestral phrases, something which Félicien David could not do in his entire 90 minute Symphonic Ode Le Désert of 1844 (review). Davis also proves himself to be a master of the broken rhythm effects of Athanaël’s inner torment of the First Act as much as the long sinuous phrases of the Méditation transformation scene of the Second Act. That famous solo is here delicately supplemented by an almost imperceptible wordless chorus, a magical effect that Massenet suggested be included in performance. Davis has the truly excellent players of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra supporting him with burnished tone and precision. The various sections of the orchestra are rendered with clarity and spaciousness in Chandos’ superb engineering job; the finest on any recording to date.

The burning fanaticism of the monk Athanaël is given sharp definition in Joshua Hopkins’ searing portrayal. His baritone is firm, incisive and well-projected. His confident dramatic portrayal is certainly the best of the bunch on the assorted recordings in my collection.

The late Erin Wall’s Thaïs can stand as a testament to her artistry. Her voice posseses a quicksilver vibrato in the upper third of her range which is not dissimilar to that of Beverly Sills, but the rest of her voice has more diaphanously rounded tone than her famous predecessor. Wall’s Mirror aria is sensuously handled with a seductive charm, and she wisely eschews rising to the top D that many sopranos attempt, usually none too successfully. Wall’s characterization of the Egyptian courtesan focuses on the always slightly out of reach aspect of Thaïs rather than emphasizing her tortured conversion to a spiritual life. Her singing is simple, direct and tastefully done.

Andrew Staples’ Nicias reveals an elegant tenor who is more a typical romantic lead than the jaded hedonist that Gallet’s libretto indicates. Staples sings with scrupulous line and pleasing tone throughout his brief scenes. Perhaps more is achieved by Nicolai Gedda’s portrayal in the Maazel recording (with Sills): his slightly too ripe tone perfectly conveys a louche aspect to the character Nicias.

Nathan Berg provides a towering Palémon, his tone warm and solid yet somehow conveying a sympathetic side to the somber leader of the Cenobite sect. The smaller roles are extremely well cast, especially the soprano Liv Redpath as the servant Crobyle, her vibrant voice possibly holding a Thaïs of her own one day in the future.

There are two quibbles that I have with this set. I have already mentioned the superb quality of the sound engineering which I auditioned in its two-channel, stereo layer. Unfortunately the wind machine and thunder sheet effects that have been added for the benefit of the Toronto audience are revealed a little too vividly when they should have been more distant in the audio mix, if present at all. Additionally, the superb ballet music, some of Massenet’s best, has been excised from the score. A pity then that it was not recorded to include in an appendix to the opera.

There have been a handful of recordings over the years but the Chandos comes out ahead of all of them. The Rudel set on RCA was defeated by gross miscasting of a singer caught about ten years too late, in a role that wasn’t part of her stage repertoire. The Maazel recording features a hypnotic Beverly Sills in a role that truly fits her like a glove but her monochromatic, narrow tone is not ideal for the close attention of the studio microphones. Additionally, Lorin Maazel is frequently insensitive and at times he drives the score to the point of frenzy, pushing Sills and the occasionally lachrymose Sherril Milnes, to their limits. To be fair to Maazel, he does play the violin solo of the Méditation enchantingly and he delivers a highly enjoyable rendition of the Ballet music.

If the elephant in the room is the 1999 Decca recording with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson under Yves Abel (review), that is because I find it impossible to listen to. Fleming more than anyone else I can think of had the physical and vocal beauty to be a the Thaïs of all-time. Unfortunately she indulges in a very mannered style of singing which has afflicted many of her studio recordings, entirely putting them out of serious consideration. Ms Fleming and Mr Hampson can both be experienced to much better effect in the live Metropolitan Opera DVD of Thaïs (review), where the demands of the staging, and singing to a full auditorium mitigate Fleming’s mannered tendency and one can enjoy the visual benefits of both singers. If one absolutely must have the complete score of Thaïs on CD – i.e. with the ballet – then opt for the Maazel recording on Warner/EMI but really there is so much more to be found in Andrew Davis’s Chandos version, not least its superb sound.

Mike Parr

Previous reviews: Ralph Moore (July 2020) ~ Jim Westhead (August 2020)

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