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Thaïs Without Libido

Los Angeles
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
05/17/2014 -  & May 25, 29, June 1*, 4, 7, 2014
Jules Massenet: Thaïs
Nino Machaidze (Thaïs), Plácido Domingo (Athanaël), Paul Groves (Nicias), Valentin Anikin (Palemon), Milena Kitic (Albine), Hai Ji Chang (Crobyle), Cassandra Zoé Velasco (Myrtale), Kihun Yoon (Servant)
Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Grant Gershon (chorus master), Patrick Fournillier (conductor)
Nicola Raab (stage director), Johan Engels (scenery and costumes design), Linus Fellbom (lighting design)

(© Robert Millard)

Libido was in short supply at Thaïs on Sunday afternoon. The tenor (singing a baritone role) was 73 years-old, the 50 year-old tenor was vocally dysfunctional, the soprano was willing if vocally worn. Never mind the libido suppressed father and mother superiors who should have been at least vocally viable to make their renunciations of the carnal meaningful.

Massenet’s opera comes from the irony laden novel Thaïs (1890) by Anatole France. It was on the Catholic Church’s infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum!

The production, by director Nicola Raab and designer Johan Engels, in fact makes a blatant case for the libido by transposing the action from ancient, decadent Alexandria into a late nineteenth century Parisian theater. The thickly sensuous, excessive fin-de-siècle decor gave designer Engels license to design an over-the-top art nouveau costume for the Roman courtesan Thaïs replete with gilded wing feathers and 96 rhinestones (according to the program booklet).

Once we heard the famous violin solo where Thaïs gives herself to God the Parisian theater was changed into a ghostly gray ruin. Thaïs’ soul flew to heaven, the grand gold feathers now a drab gray - it was confusing because the corpus evidently was not assumed at the same time. Thaïs later appeared downstage center dressed in white satin as the bride of Jesus against the backdrop of an abstracted reclining naked female form - very graphic nipples. It was maybe a hill on the Egyptian desert or maybe the Montagne Sainte-Victoire in the south of France.

Even more confusing was the backstage of the theater as some sort of monastic setting where grandly dressed monks decried sensual pleasures. Inside the theater we did witness these pleasures, men in top hats salivating over an unseen burlesque act. The production offered clever and lively, graphic action and there was a lot of it (though it did not always make a lot of sense). What else do you want?

Massenet’s score (1894) is sensuous late romantic music. It is finely wrought, beautiful music with far more delicate drama than the bombastic Italian works of this period. Its dramatic points are more intellectual than visceral.

L.A. Opera engaged Massenet specialist Patrick Fournillier to conduct. He did the best he could with the uneven vocal and musical forces provided to him. Plácido Domingo as the carnal minded monk Athanaël still sings well though his voice no longer has its famous warmth and sheen, his tenor style production in the baritone range at times resembled barking. Conductor Fournillier accommodated this quality by imposing a hell, fire and brimstone tonal force much at odds with the Massenet poetic. Mr. Domingo moves well for a man his age, however Massenet’s baritone is ideally a man in the prime of life and voice, otherwise the role has no meaning.

Soprano Nino Machaidze is no stranger to L.A. Opera audiences, having appeared as Fiorella not so long ago in Il Turco in Italia and Juliette in Roméo et Juliette where she brought fun and flair and sang with a focus and a brilliance that was not at all present in her Thaïs. There was now significant spread in her tone that could embody neither the sensuality of voice of the courtesan nor the tonal beauty of a woman now transfixed by a new spirituality.

Thaïs’ suitor Nicias was attempted by tenor Paul Groves. He was in very evident vocal distress. Bass Valentin Anikin from L.A. Opera’s young artist program is not of an appropriate professional level to sing an important role. Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic who has sung major roles at LA Opera in past years sang the mother superior with forced tone.

The production comes most recently from the Helsinki Opera having originated at the Göteborg Opera (Sweden) in 2010. Meanwhile, it made important stops in Valencia and Seville where tenor Domingo sang the carnally obsessed monk.

Michael Milenski



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