Cher Public

The People’s Courtesan

Thais2Like Liza Minnelli at the Palace or Nomi Malone in Goddess, Renée Fleming‘s Thaïs is better understood as diva event than Gesamtkunstwerk. It’s an opportunity to watch a star lady do her voodoo in a work that exists largely to showcase her glamour and appeal.

The raison dêtre of this particular showcase is undoubtedly the most polarizing contemporary opera singer, and whether you love her or hate her, a new Metropolitan Opera DVD of Thaïs is likely to reinforce your opinion

Acclaimed tenor/baritone/conductor/Live in HD host Plácido Domingo sets the scene on the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Massenet’s Thaïs in his pre-show introduction. After sharing that he’d love to sing the male lead but can’t because it’s a baritone role (this was filmed in 2008, pre-Simon Boccanegra; perhaps now he’ll give it a shot), he gravely intones: “And now, Renée Fleming in… Thaïs.”

An endless scene and a half transpires before the above-the-title lady in question finally makes her grand — and stunningly gowned — entrance, but to be sure when she does finally appear everyone onstage screams “Thaïs!” just in case we might have otherwise missed her. Fleming is not an exact physical fit for the role; her blond, dimpled good looks are more suggestive of a regional beauty queen (Miss Indiana? Pennsylvania, perhaps?) than the impossibly gorgeous and exotic lust object the libretto is constantly reminding us Thaïs is.


But her singing is mostly strong and accurate — and, for the most part, refreshingly free of the bad habits that earned her the nickname La Scoopenda. The bulk of the role lies in a comfortable soprano mid-range that suits her voice, and she handles many of the higher notes with grace and musicality. Her interpretation of “Dis-moi que je suis belle” at the beginning of Act 2 is a particularly moving and well-sung performance sure to please her fans. She only resorts to screaming at the very end of act 3, where Massenet wrote a repeated phrase escalating to high D (finally settling to a pianissmo high A) that could confound almost any soprano without a superhuman instrument. Even then she hits the correct pitches with at least fifty percent accuracy.

As for acting, the character of Thaïs is so ridiculous – a wanton prostitute (excuse me, “disciple of Venus”) so successful at her trade that the entire community riots when she decides to give it up and join a convent – that the production and Fleming settle for creating a series of Diva Moments rather than trying to make the character seem real.

She mounts a ramp just to sing a single high C, then skitters back down to give Athanael the least romantic kiss seen at the Met since Karita Mattila licked the head of John the Baptist! She caps an aria by hugging herself and beaming adorably as the Met audience showers her with applause! She throws herself on a bed and laughs hysterically — then her laughter turns abruptly to weeping! She cackles; she burns incense; she waves her arms over her head!

Fleming’s musicality is strong enough to transcend this nonsense, but she does seem to have a gay old time playing a singing Theda Bara. However, those perpetual dramatic indulgences are a cinch to make the production more appealing for devotees of camp.

Thomas Hampson sings the role of Athanaël, which offers roughly equal stage time to the soprano part but far less musical or dramatic interest. Athanaël is a bit of a Norman Maine/Stedman Graham role – even when Thaïs is not onstage, he’s always going on about her – but Hampson sings it beautifully, though perhaps his Athanaël would be more compelling if his singing reflected more of the character’s emotional turmoil. His acting skills are much more problematic, especially in close-up. His dramatic interpretation is limited to two emotions: tormented (this involves brow-furrowing) and boyishly gleeful (“Look, ma, I’m singing!”). Neither facial expression offers much insight into Athanaël’s tortured attempts to reconcile his love of Jesus with his lust for Thaïs.

Thais5Concertmaster David Chan offers the musical highlight of the DVD with a brilliant interpretation of the famous violin “Meditation” between the scenes of Act Two. The composition is undoubtedly the most beautiful melody in the opera – Massenet liked it so much he repeated it almost non-stop for the third act as well – and Chan gives an emotional performance that traces Thaïs’s difficult journey from the empty glamour of sin to the simplicity of saintly living. The Meditation is the one moment in the entire opera with true emotional resonance; it’s impossible not to be disappointed when it ends and the curtain rises on yet another closeup of Tom Hampson’s scowl.

John Cox’s physical production is a potpourri of Art Deco and period elements – dreadlocks for Athanaël and his fellow monks, Roaring Twenties costumes for Thaïs’s decadent circle of friends. The sets are mostly spare desert scenes or under-furnished interiors with the exception of the palace set in Act 2, a disaster in gold plate (even the palm tree sparkles!) that suggests Brighton Beach more than the banks of the Nile. The Christian Lacroix gowns for Thaïs are the one visually stunning element of the production; even the robe she wears to walk across the desert until her feet bleed is a stylishly draped off-the-shoulder number. Jesus López-Cobos (“my countryman,” Domingo helpfully reminds us in the introduction) conducts a dignified, nuanced reading of the score by the typically excellent Met orchestra.


The only special feature is a compilation of the intermission interviews that aired during the original HD broadcast. We are granted the opportunity to hear Domingo repeatedly pronounce Massenet as though it rhymed with “bassinet,” learn a bit about the costumes, and discover that Fleming is particularly fond of Thaïs’s Act 2 aria because it addresses the uncomfortable but eternal truth that “youth fades.” The (sadistic?) director chooses a tight close-up of the star for this interview, but it must be said that whatever you think about Renée Fleming in Thaïs, the diva looks good.


  • Nerva Nelli

    Actually, Costello is Irish-American. He told me so.

  • mrmyster

    A comment to Bianca Castafiore: I mention that Sra. Gutierrez is Cuban because her own web site says that she is, and program books from various of her performances call her, “Cuban American” or “Cuban.”
    Why be so defensive about being Cuban? What’s wrong with it? I think it’s fine!
    Eglise a considerable talent and a positive force in the shows that cast her. Graham is American, and in an Amereican context it is not necessarily required by editors to write that. Costello is Italian? Really? I thought him to be American also. In my experience, Costello is an Irish name.
    It pleases me to send you a polite reply so that you may see an example
    of how reasonable people of decent temperament can handle offensive oafs,
    especially when they are way off target.
    Have a nice day!

  • luvtennis


    Apart from whatever feelings about the morality of your expressed opinions, I can definitely say that Opera is going NOWHERE fast if we start casting according to race . . . again.

    And please don’t throw the PC tag at me as an insult. I don’t take openmindedness, tolerance, respect for others and refusal to accept the opinions of the majority as defining truth and reality as a bad thing.

    BTW, Bianca -- You made all the point anyone needed to make with the Gutierrez reference.

    La Cieca -- Can’t tell from your reference but what are your thoughts on colorblind casting.

    • Bianca Castafiore

      grazie, luvtennis.

      mrmyster has only referred to this singer as cuban 7 times in the last 2 months. and btw, she might think of herself as american, has he thought about that? apparently not. being cuban apparently is much more relevant than the fact that she’s a lyric soprano.

      and btw, bringing out the old tired cliche of PC only masks how retrograde your prejudices are.

  • luvtennis


    Your posts on this topic are not making sense to me. Here is the bottomline from my perspective:

    Casting a role based on the ethnic identity of the singers is bad. If the best Aida available is white, cast her. If the best Donna Anna available is black, cast her. And, by the way, best doesn’t include “is closest to the color I think the character should be.”

    [BTW, you might be surprised about how openminded 18th-early 19th century Europeans were about color. Ever read Vanity Fair?]

    The fact that Price thought Salome an inappropriate role for her has absolutely nothing to do with the matter at hand. She had the good sense to avoid a number of things that she could have sung, but she wisely took a longer view of her career.

  • mrmyster

    Mr Tennis, if I may say this without prejudice, you frame the question incorrectly. I do not contemplate “casting according to race.” One does cast according to vocal type, to temperamental qualities, to visual qualities — would you cast Alessandra Marc as Hoffman’s doll (even if she could sing it), or Margaret Harshaw as Dailia (a role she once sang at the Paris Opera?). No? Yes? I would not. Looks/appearance certainly a factor in all casting, especially today at the Met. I once heard a 400 lb woman audition for Mimi — it broke your heart, for she had the most perfect Mimi voice you ever heard, and ravishing musicianship and emotional delivery. Yet, you could not put her on stage in that role. If that same singer were black, and she was denied the role, a lot of people would argue that it was because she is black/African American (the better term). It is a win-less argument, and race should have no part in it — let’s say a demure, dainty, almond-eyed African American had a Butterfly voice and was not cast because of her race — THAT would be unacceptable. I agree. Thais COULD be a black woman, if she had the voice and style. Miss Price, to my taste, did not have the pure lyric voice or personal style of a Thais — thus if I don’t cast her in my opera house for those reasons, is that racial. Hell no!!!! So, be careful how you frame the question and what your agendas are. I think being militantly, often chip-on-shoulder ‘politically correct’ in this matters is very out of date and pretty silly. But go talk to Gelb. He’s the master of casting!! :)


    Oh goody, waters to be muddied. I’d like to sugges5t the perfect Thais, a soprano with the range, the tone, the temperament, the looks, the acting skills, and would need minimal make-up. Michael Miniacci. Of course, there’s just one little problem . . . .

    • mrmyster

      Betsy -- I don’t think Miniacci is capable of the high camp necessary
      to bring off the role of Thais — in addition to which, I don’t care
      how good your make-up man is, there will be no getting around
      the point that he’s in drag, and that would kill the whole thing.
      Let’s move on.
      Isn’t it amusing how opera is *gestalt* for so many people? !! ?
      They just endlessly read their own afflictions and prejudices into
      Indeed, let’s move on.