This review is of a presentation of Thaïs that was performed live at the NY Metropolitan Opera on December 20, 2008 and then distributed as an encore presentation in HD to a number of local theaters throughout the country on January 7, 2009. This is not a review of the live performance in New York.
Composer: Jules Massenet
Librettist: Louis Gallet
Based on the Novel Thaïs by Anatole Frank
Met Opera Orchestra Directed by: Jesús Lopéz-Cobos
Sung in French with English sub-titles.
Opera is first of all about music, particularly vocal music, and then about telling a grand story through the music. The characters in operas tend to be archetypes and the stories tend to be metaphors for the great themes of the human drama. In Thaïs, Jules Massenet created a vehicle for the music to soar in the telling of the rise and fall of the leading characters.
Fourth Century Egypt. The curtain rises on a desert
monastery near Alexandria where monks are leading a quiet, contemplative life away from the temptations of secular distractions. The most pious and ascetic is Athanaël (baritone Thomas Hampson) who has returned from Alexandria lamenting the sinful state of the city and its infatuation with the renowned
courtesan Thaïs, sung by soprano Renée Fleming. The old monk Palémon warns Athanaël not to meddle in worldly matters, but Athanaël vows to convert Thaïs to a pious life. As the other monks retire, Athanaël has a vision of Thaïs beckoning sensuosly to him. The next morning he wakens his brother monks and reaffirms his intention to seek out and convert Thaïs. Palémon again warns Athanaël not to become entangled in the secular world, but Athanaël ignores him and leaves for the city.
Athanaël arrives at the home of his childhood friend
Nicias, who has become a wealthy businessman in Alexandria while Athanaël fled to his life of religious seclusion. When Athanaël tells Nicias of his mission, Nicias tells him that Thaïs has been his mistress, but is leaving that very night because Nicias has run out of money. Nicias offers to introduce Athanaël to Thaïs, but laughs at his intentions and warns him not to anger the goddess Venus by trying to steal one of her most dedicated preistesses of love. Thaïs arrives and says her farewells to Nicias. Athanaël then confronts her and sternly condemns her life of false love and pleasure. Thaïs laughs at him and insists he is blind to his own nature and tempts him to give in to love. He flees in horror, declaring he will wait for her at her own house.
Thaïs is alone in her bedroom. She begins to lament her lonely life. All her friends are false. She has all the material possessions she could desire but she feels an emptiness in her life. Looking in her mirror she realizes that all her life is based on her beauty, and that her beauty will soon fade. She has dedicated her life to what she had thought of as a life of love, but it has left her only loneliness. Athanaël enters. Thaïs tells him of her doubts and warns him that she is not worthy of him. He tells her of a kind
of love that can offer her eternal life, but to attain it she must cast aside all her worldly wealth and desires. He then tells her that if she will accompany him to a convent, she may have this eternal life. He will await her outside her house until morning. Hearing Nicias outside begging her to return to him she falls into despair, unable to return to her old life and rejecting the new life
offered by Athanaël. She collapses in tears.
There is an orchestral interlude (Meditation) after
which Thaïs appears in front of her house to tell Athanaël that she has decided to come with him. Athanaël accepts but tells her she must burn her house and all her possessions. She agrees but begs to keep only a small statue of Eros, the god of true love as opposed to the false love she had based her life on until then. When he learns that the statuette was a gift from Nicias, Athanaël smashes it and leads her back into the house. Nicias appears outside having won a fortune gambling and demanding to have Thaïs back. He is accompanied by a band of revelers singing and dancing and enjoying his good fortune. Thaïs and Athanaël reappear and tell Nicias of her conversion. The crowd threatens to kill Athanaël for taking their beloved Thaïs from them, but Nicias distracts them by throwing handsful of money about and Thaïs and Athanaël escape while her house goes up in flames.
Athanaël and Thaïs are crossing the desert and come
to an oasis near the convent. Thaïs declares her exhaustion and inability to go on. Athanaël sternly exhorts her to ignore her worldly pains until he sees that her feet are bleeding. He then is consumed with pity and goes in search of water and food. Athanaël tenderly soothes her feet and gives her water from his own hands. Thaïs thanks him for his kindness and for bringing her to salvation.
The nuns from the convent meet them and welcome Thaïs to her new home. As she disappears inside, Athanaël realizes that he will never see her again and he cries out in despair.
Back at his monastary, Palémon is concerned that
Athanaël will not eat or drink. Athanaël confesses that he is tortured by thoughts of Thaïs's beauty. Palémon repeats his warning not to get involved in worldly matters. In his sleep, Athanaël has a vision of Thaïs first as a beautiful temptress, then as a saint about to ascend into heaven at the convent. He awakes, crying he must go to her and flies into the desert.
At the convent, Thaïs lies dying after three months of
self-mortification and penance. The abbess welcomes the distraught Athanaël. Thaïs gratefully thanks him for bringing her to this state of grace while Athanaël confesses that she has converted him to worldly love. As she sees visions of angels and heaven, she does not understand the monk's distress and raptuously sings of her happiness in her piety while Athanaël sings of his deep love and desire for her. As Thaïs dies, Athanaël, left alone, can only beg his God for mercy.
Thaïs is rarely staged, primarily because it is very
difficult to find voices that can adequately express the emotional range required. This production is the first at the Met since 1978, when Beverly Sills sang the lead. The opera is also unusual in that it is almost entirely a vehicle for the lead soprano and baritone, with the tenor Nicias having the only other significant role. Renée Fleming as Thaïs and Thomas Hampson as Athanaël are soaringly exquisite in their performances. We feel the anguish and
fervor of the characters as they each go through their transition, Thaïs from worldly to spiritual and Athanaël from spiritual to worldly.
The irony of this dual conversion is the heart of this
opera. In the beginning, Athanaël is a religious fundamentalist who sees Thaïs as the worst symbol of a sinful city that must be "saved". Thaïs is living a life that is only as deep as her beautiful skin, and that she realizes is as fleeting as her beauty. By the end each has converted the other and their spirits pass in the night. This is no typical love story. There is no happy
ending, only the brilliant exhaustion brought on by the intense emotions of the ill-fated Athanaël and Thaïs.
The quality of the voices of Ms. Fleming and Mr. Hampson
cannot be overstated. They are brilliant not only in the technical purity of their singing, but also in the emotional expression brought to the performance. For a more technical commentary on the demands of the roles, see
this interview with Renée Fleming. The violin solo in the "Meditation" during Act II is beautifully performed by Concert Master David Chan. This is the only instrumental work from this opera that is commonly heard as a stand-alone piece.
The HD broadcast version of this show brings the viewer
much closer to the actual performance than could ever be possible in a viewing in the opera house itself. This can be distracting, since the performers are playing to a live audience, not to the cameras. Stage performance requires that actions be exaggerated in order to be apparent to audience members sitting in the back of the house. To a camera in close-up, this exaggeration is clearly seen and can detract from the viewer's enjoyment of the performance. That said, the quality of the broadcast production equals the high standard of the stage production, with many camera angles and very clean fades from camera to camera. There are some shots from angles not available to the audience - high overhead or behind the actors looking toward the audience. The audio quality is astounding, giving a three dimensional impression of the action. During scene changes the cameras show the back stage activities, with sets being moved and performers scurrying about. During the two intermissions,
Plácido Domingo acts as host for interviews with Ms. Fleming and Mr. Hampson.
I don't yet own an HDTV or Blu-Ray player, but if
this performance ever becomes available on disk I will probably have to upgrade my equipment so I can enjoy it again.