About us / Contact

The Classical Music Network


Europe : Paris, Londn, Zurich, Geneva, Strasbourg, Bruxelles, Gent
America : New York, San Francisco, Montreal                       WORLD

Your email :



Flesh in the age of reason

09/23/2003 -  and 26 September 2003
Jules Massenet: Thaïs

Clive Bayley (Palémon), Richard Zeller (Athanaël), Sarah-Jane Davies (Crobyle), Stephanie Marshall (Myrtale), Paul Charles Clarke (Nicias), Elizabeth Futral (Thaïs), Victoria Joye (La Charmeuse), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Mère Albine)

Emmanuel Joël (conductor)

Anatole France's 1894 novel Thaïs is an elegant Enlightenment satire on the absurdities of religion. Massenet's opera retains the magnificent title character, the autonomous courtesan who, like a baroque Mary Magdalene, come to see the divine in human love and dies of self-denial while the ascetic monk who converts her is destroyed with desire for her. But the spin is different: Massenet's Athanaël is no longer a fanatic doomed by his extremism, but a conventional victim-tenor, essentially a rework of Des Grieux in Saint Sulpice from Massenet's previous hit, Manon. The redemption of Thaïs is in spirit closer to that of Marguerite in Faust, a kind of process of moral entropy where the degradation of the heroine somehow draws the hero's strength away from him, and the spectacle is one of romantic masochism. The decorative world of the opera is deracinated Orientalism, Aubrey Beardsley without the edge, and the music seems to be completely subordinate to the decor. For example, three of the named roles are two slave girls and a dancer who sing luscious lines and coloratura tweets in one of a series of a soft-porn entertainments. The overall result resembles (proleptically) a French-tinted D.W. Griffiths movie knockoff, with what tension there is derived from the live performance rather than the music.

The ENO may have chosen to put on Thaïs to explore new repertoire -- a delightful production of Massenet's (much later) Don Quichotte was widely enjoyed, except perhaps by lovers of Cervantes -- but out of its original (Catholic, bel epoque) context, it seems more like a vehicle for a particularly luscious star soprano, and indeed has been recorded by Renée Fleming. Fortunately, Elizabeth Futral has the presence and allure for the title role, and most of the vocal glamour, only lacking ease in the rather large number of passages that offer the singer the chance to show off pure voice. She looks a bit like the young Arletty, with heavy dark curls and a direct gaze, which is exactly right for the role. Richard Zeller was probably about right for Athanaël as well, though as he is a non-entity who suffers at the end that isn't saying much, while Paul Charles Clarke was a little more incisive as Nikias, Athanaël's old friend who chose the path of sensuality and has sold everything (and written three books of elegies) to try to get Thaïs to love him. Victoria Joyce, a potential Queen of the Night, nearly made something of the dancer's derivative bat squeaks, while ENO regulars Clive Bayley and Rebecca de Pont Davies had weight if not substance as the monastic leaders.

Emmanuel Joël directed the ENO orchestra and chorus in fine style, getting the perfume exactly right.

HE Elsom



Copyright ©ConcertoNet.com