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Mad Monk Meets Curvy Courtesan

New York
Metropolitan Opera
12/08/2008 -  & December 11, 17, 20, 30, 2008
Jules Massenet: Thaïs
Renée Rleming (Thaïs), Thomas Hampson (Athanaël), Michael Schade (Nicias), Alain Vernhes (Palemon), Leah Partride (La Charmeuse), Alyson Cambridge Crobyle), Ginger Costa-Jackson (Myrtale), Maria Zifchak (Abine), Trevor Scheunemann (Nicia’s Servant), Kurt Phinney, Daniel Clark Smith, Craig Montgomery, Roger Andrews, Richard Pearson (Cenobites)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Jesús López-Cobos (Conductor)
John Cox (Production), Lighting Designer (Duane Schuler), Sara Jo Slate (Choreographer), Christian Lacroix (Ms Fleming’s costumers)

Renée Fleming (Thaïs) (© Brigitte Lacombe/Metropolitan Opera)

Was this the face that launched a thousand billboards, from the Bronx to Staten Island, from Kennedy Airport to the deepest subways of New York? Yes, the Metropolitan Opera has gone all out on plastering the covetous come-hither visage of Renée Pleming on every street in the tri-state area. And nobody has ever uttered a sigh of regret, especially not those who just enjoy beauty without all that opera nonsense.

But Massenet’s opera is a mixture of old-fashioned music, challenging vocal lines, and—here’s the surprise—a male lead who makes Massenet’s 1894 opera a mixture of Elmer Gantry and the most ferocious Freudian repressions.

Not Ms. Fleming as Thaïs. We come to her later. But Thomas Hampson as the Third Century monk, Athanaël. The original novelist, Anatole France, was a political satirist, in this case of religion. But through the libretto, and through Mr. Hampson’s character, we have a character who is a psychotic wreck.

Like most religious nuts, he wants to convert the world. But when thinking about Thaïs the courtesan of Alexandria, he goes crazy. The opera puts her in two dreams, neither of which should be seen by children. He insists she burn her house down, that she throw away her statue of Venus, he drags her over the desert, shuts her up in convent, and—too late—comes to rescue her, singing to her (now he tells her!), that there is no god.

Hampson rings true. His rage against Alexandria (Voilà donc la terrible cité!!), with such passion that it becomes almost an anthem. He joins her in a manic duet telling her to return all her goods to l’éternal oubli!”—eternal oblivion. So after dragging her through the Egyptian and he sings a most lovely simple duet about bathing themselves with water and fruit, it seems most unlikely, especially the high D in such a barren terrain.

Athanaël is a maniac. And Thomas Hampson plays him with a real rage

This was a new production of Thaïs, and the sets were glowing with that clear glow which you can only get in the Egyptian oasis south of Alexandria, where the first Christian churches are still in service. Everything before the great conversion was blue. The sky is cerulean blue, the household of the rich heedless Nicias was framed in turquoise blue and gold. The bedroom of Thaïs—as large as Grand Central Station—had its blue tints.

The last scene is surrealistic and naïve at once. The altar upon which Thaïs sits, ready to die, against a glowing black sky and stars was resplendent and touching.
Those who love Massenet’s music would find nothing visual to annoy them. Those not so keen could look at the exotic colorings both of the sinful city and the arid desert.

But this is an opera which any great soprano should adore. And Ms. Fleming—even off the Manhattan hoardings—is a gift to any audience. Always dressed for the part, she had Christian Lacroix design her party robe and her dazzling scarlet bedroom clothes. I don’t know if he did her mendicant robes, but with Ms. Fleming wearing them, I imagine even John the Baptist might doff his thorny robes for a quick dance.

A stickler for authenticity, Ms. Fleming claims that Thaïs was not really a harlot: she was a courtesan. That’s all well and good. But the soprano is so luscious that even in the last scene, where she is supposedly “ravaged”, she is a treat for any mad monk.

Ms. Fleming his this singular quality of being as poignant an actress as a singer. In Otello, we care for Desdemona more than the rages of Othello. Here, Ms. Fleming changes from party girl to would-be nun all too quickly when she looks in the mirror. But so deep is her feeling that she literally trembles when reflects for Venus, like Snow White’s Wicked Witch, “Dis-moi que je suis belle”—tell me that I am beautiful. This is not an aria for the usual diva singing.

Like her final aria, Massenet gives her the middle register—and some marvelous high notes to be sung oh so softly. When she cries, in her last words, “Oh, heaven. I see….God”, Massenet has created a recitative ending in a pianissimo note on “Dieu”, and Ms. Fleming makes it a benediction.

The group of monks, led by Alain Vernhes, were suitably religious in the first “exotic” scene, and Mr. Vernhes was very stolid indeed in the final act. Nicias the party-maker was a jolly old plutocrat, and with the always reliable Met chorus, he manages in Act II to perform somewhat heroically.

One must never forget the one reason why Thaïs is still shown so much. The good old “Meditation”, here played beautifully by Concertmaster David Chan. The piece might feel schmaltzy as an entr’acte, but when it returns in a variety of keys, the work has its moments. And while Massenet is not for every taste, those who love character, invention and vocal thrills, Thaïs can attain wonders, for repressed acolytes and resplendent opening-night audiences.

Harry Rolnick



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