Cher Public

Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes

When a usually temperate friend learned of my next Met opera he remarked, “I cannot bear Thaïs, such junk!” Not having enjoyed my previous encounter there with Massenet’s penitent whore and fanatical monk I might have agreed. But a wonderfully committed Ailyn Pérez and Gerald Finley at Saturday afternoon’s revival abetted by Emmanuel Villaume’s passionate conducting converted me to a Thaïs believer. 

But it’ll still never make it into my top 250 operas. Massenet just isn’t a composer I seek out; while I quite like Werther and Cendrillon, Manon always seems endless and unconvincing—the quick, brutal La Navarraise appeals to me more. The hothouse exoticism and faux-religiosity of Thaïs haven’t aged very well which might explain its relative scarcity these days. But in the early 2000s the star-power of Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson convinced a number of venues to produce the work; the Met’s production originated in Chicago in 2002 and was brought east six years later.

I thought it odd that Saturday’s program omitted the set and costume designer of John Cox’s production but a quick glance at the Met archive revealed that information was also missing in 2008. In Chicago both were credited to Paul Brown who might want to distance himself from the spare but kitschy eyesore on stage. Has there ever been a bigger, gaudier, uglier staircase than the one for the heroine’s grand entrance? And who dreamed up the precarious balcony—with no railing (!!)–at the top of those stairs? One feared for both Pérez and Finley when they delivered solos perched on it. The cool desert sets were nicely evocative even if they were strikingly reminiscent of Santo Loquasto’s design for Jürgen Flimm’s Met Salome.

Cox, who returned to revive the production, did a competent if uninspired job although the composer and librettist Louis Gallet don’t always make it easy particularly in the clunky second-act finale where after the obligatory belly-dancing interlude Nicias attempts to distract the rabble by throwing wads of cash at them. Cox was also presumably hamstrung nine years ago when Fleming and Hampson appeared at arm’s length of their challenging roles. Both struck me as self-aware opera superstars oh-so-earnestly going through the motions rather than embracing the essences of Thaïs and Athanaël.

Being convincing as Alexandria’s most alluring and highest-priced courtesan or the Cenobite cult’s most ascetic and evangelical man of God might not be the easiest tasks, but somehow Saturday’s soprano and baritone achieved those miracles. Along with Peter Mattei, Finley must be my favorite baritone of today.

He uses his smooth, dark, virile voice with illuminating nuance always at the service of the music and the character. Athanaël could easily become an insufferable prig, his endless rants about renunciation and its heavenly reward threaten to wear out the listener long before they sway Thaïs. But Finley made you believe in the monk’s stubborn zeal while suggesting it was motivated as much by his intoxication at her beauty as by his genuine concern for her soul.

More than once I was reminded that Finley has recently taken on a new Wagner opera, Parsifal: his wounded, weary entrance and his searing cry at hearing of Thaïs’s impending death recalled his role of Amfortas. But he also became Parsifal when he was encircled in chains of flowers by the skittering assistant-whores, an episode that culminated in Thaïs giving his first-ever (?) kiss. My memory is fuzzy: I don’t remember Fleming straddling Hampson then grinding away on top of him during Athanaël’s final-act fever dream? Finley’s anguished epiphany as he realized he was seeing Thaïs for the last time as she entered the convent proved the most moving moment of the afternoon.

The soprano, whom I had only previously heard in concerts, voluptuously embodied his irresistible amour fou. It did take her a good while to overcome her silent first appearance gamely executing risible hoochie-coochie moves during Athanaël’s vision. That spectacle was then followed by a godawful “Harmonia Gardens” entrance sashay after which her golden complexion, golden hair (Fleming’s riot-of-curls wig?) and golden dress disappeared against the golden staircase. But once alone in her bedroom in the second act and after some impressive cape-swirling moves the crassness disappeared and she invited you into Thaïs’s tortured inner world with a compelling yet vulnerable “mirror” aria.

If the voice lacked the ideal glamour to mirror her ravishing physical appearance, she sang richly with delicate detail fining down to some lovely floated high notes. I’ve been told that her intonation can be erratic and her high notes problematic but she mostly sang in tune and except for two shouted Ds in the final duet her upper register rang out solidly. She didn’t condescend to the vagaries of her character’s conflicted nature but embraced them and created a sympathetic flesh-and-blood woman rather than a garish cartoon.

France Bellemare (making her debut) and Megan Marino scampered blithely while blending nicely as her partners in depravity, Crobyle and Myrtale, Also making her debut Deanna Breiwick whom I had enjoyed during her years at the Juilliard School seemed stressed by the intricate Orientalisms of La Charmeuse.

As Thaïs’s latest besotted client and old school friend of Athanaël (how convenient!), Jean-François Borras brought idiomatic flair and a pungent if reedy tenor to Nicias. It was my first time encountering him in the house and although I know he’s won some acclaim locally as the Duke and Rodolfo I didn’t hear the richness and amplitude needed for those and other Italian roles.

On the other hand I’ve heard David Pittsinger a number of times since attending his Met debut at Trulove 20 years ago in the premiere of Jonathan Miller’s The Rake’s Progress. It’s always a pleasure to encounter this fine bass although he unfortunately seems fated to be cast there only in smallish roles like Palémon, Athanaël’s wearily one-note and singularly unhelpful spiritual advisor.

As expected, Borras’s verbal acuity was a joy but the French diction of the entire cast was appreciably better than is sometimes heard at the Met. Having an insightful French conductor may have helped and Villaume drew lustrous playing from his orchestra and hushed singing from the chorus. He also got a big laugh when he waved a big handkerchief in the air after an audience loudly sneezed as he was about to commence the final act. First violinist David Chan’s “Méditation” expectedly drew a long ovation but it struck me as a bit over-dramatic with an surfeit of throbbing vibrato.

I wasn’t much looking forward to Thaïs but its stirring leads seduced me despite the inscrutable staging of the final scene. Rather than dying on a cot in her stark cell the heroine was instead caked with white make-up, dressed in a prim white gown and perched in a chair on the altar presumably to resemble the statue that will be raised to mark her wondrous redemption. But against all odds Pérez and Finley somehow made it work and a grateful and enthusiastic if somewhat sparse Veterans Day audience rose to cheer them.

So Thaïs may not be pure or even tarnished junk although I suspect Massenet did cause me to dream of the Kardashians Saturday nightWTF?! But onward to more Massenet at the Met in the spring: the gorgeous, vernal Cendrillon but with Lucette and Prince both pushing 50!

  • MissShelved

    Someone in the last thread called it a “pizza” opera. Not a bad analogy. I enjoy an occasional pizza, but I know it would be a poor choice to eat it all the time, Still, when one wants pizza nothing else will do. I’m tired of apologizing for ‘guilty pleasures’ just to show I can appreciate the so-called good stuff.

    • Camille

      More a tarte aux fruits kind of opéra, I’d be bold enough to venture…

      One wants pizza, sicilian style, for Cavalleria Rusticana

      • But with at least some cinnamon and cloves: this isn’t Mireille.

        IIRC Elizabeth David wrote that some food or other was “not something you’d want to eat every day,” but wondered who would want to eat the same thing every day anyway. Massenet is obviously an important opera composer and in my largely uneducated opinion a very competent one. I think it’s normal for us to have a chance to see and hear his works well played, with good casts and good productions (the latter is apparently not the case at the Met, form what I’ve seen on YT). There are better ones than Manon, which I admit I’m never actually delighted to see on a schedule.

        After seeing Adriana L. in 2015 I wrote that once every 20 years was about enough. It’s about time we had a chance to see Esclarmonde again, and it would ne nice if Manon made way for it!

        • Camille

          Avec Ras el Harnout,

          Who is going to sing Esclarmonde? Audrey Luna? Perhaps the right voice but I don’t know she has the allure.

          At least, she has the Tour d’Eiffel!!
          Plus one!

    • fletcher

      That was Ivy, I think, referring to Adriana Lecouvreur, not Thaïs, which is surely more a sugary multi-layered confection made to resemble a communion wafer.

      • Ivy Lin

        It was me and I was referring to Adriana as a pizza opera, not Thais.

    • grimoaldo2

      “‘ I’m tired of apologizing for ‘guilty pleasures’ just to show I can appreciate the so-called good stuff.”
      I haven’t ever apologised for enjoying all kinds of music generally thought to be low-class.Just come out and say it, you’ll feel better -- “I am a proud Massenet/Gounod/Meyerbeer lover!” (that’s me- maybe even worse, early Verdi with banda marches, G&S, then really weird stuff like Hervé, Adolphe Adam, Auber, all kinds of Baroque music)- and if anybody looks down on you for your low taste,just tell them to sod off.

  • southerndoc1

    Thanks for the review.

    Does anyone know if placing the dying saint on the altar has any basis in historical custom, or was this purely Cox’s invention?

    • Camille

      Plus—I recall seeing the dying Thaïs fotos of the former singer who portrayed her at the Met in her full working girl regalia and don’t remember at all this plaster saint appliqué. Perhaps I missed something here? Perhaps not?

      • southerndoc1

        No, Fleming did the same death scene, as if the nuns had been giving her nothing but water high in calcium.

        As we know from Gibbon, Egypt was the epicenter of weird cults during the early centuries of Christianity, so I wonder if this was a common practice?

        • Camille

          No, I did not know that Egypt had so many more weird cults than anywhere else in the ancient world, and that I find interesting. Immense Ptàh, anyone?

          Indeed, I googled a video of the finale and there she sat all calcified. Guessing I was thinking of another foto of her in a chair!

  • PCally

    Never in my life did I think I’d be excited at the prospect of seeing Thais but Finley is IMO one of the best currently active singers and I’m excited to see Perez in a role that will showcase her.

    • Camille

      Never in my life have I attended that tart Thaïs nor have had any intention of doing so — until hearing Saturday’s performance. And that includes the vaunted Bubbles Thaïs in late seventies San Francisco which was notorious for Milnes’s purported Lewis C. K. scene near the end of opera.

      It has always sounded so tired and tawdry to me. NOT so with the differentiated by each act’s action in Ms Pérez’s inflections and Mr Fnnley’s fine accounting of the text and de-priggification of the insufferable Athanaël. I mean, who even wants to see this obnoxious character have a wet dream, he’s ordinarily such a pain in the derrière?

      Add to that the careful attention to line and fluidity, colour and playing with the rythymic pulse, and a satisfactory (more or less) back-up crew of characters including a fine turn for Monsieur Borras (finally cast appropriately), and I am going to take the leap of faith ma sœur Thaïs did, and go see this old turkey--and just in time for Thanksgiving it is, too! Let’s give thanks for this hoary(sic) old chestnut finally getting a decent turn on the spit of the Metropolitan stage! Evohé!

      For further reading on the subject of this opera, its genesis and its creatrix, the divine Miss Sanderson from Sacramento, may I heartily recommend this opus (the only one there is!) —

      Read all you can on the spawning of this second joint endeavor of Monsieur Massenet and Miss Sanderson in Belle Époque Paris, an impossible world where such things were conjured up and spun out of the thin air. One may also read herein on how it came to be that Mary Garden purloined Sybil’s purls, forever thereafter to proclaim (and in best La Cieca intonation) “Thaïs must have PEARLS!”

      And now a note to Mr Corwin, our stalwart reviewer—

      I was quite surprised to see you share my ambivalency toward Manon, I do NOT enjoy it and it goes on too long!—and proclivity toward La Navarraise, which is short and packs a punch! I did see it in concert once (not the Garanca/Alagna version I’m sorry to say), and have a trusty, rusty old cassette of General Horne singing the protagoniste and doing the best bad, mad cackling at the end I’ve ever heard!

      My Massenet [tm] operas are Le Cid and the sultry Hérodiade, my old Crespin, Gorr, Lance, Massard, Mars recording of which I wore to veritable ribbons. Pity the whole of it was not recorded! What a superb recording it is though.

      And finally, try melatonin to wash those Kardashians right out of your hair—hideous nightmare that it might have been!

      • CCorwinNYC
        • Camille

          “Ah! Le ciel ouvert…je vois…DIEU!!!”

          GRAND Merci!!!!!!! With a bonus of mjc!

        • Camille

          FABulous Navarraise — what great singing, even makes this shabby little shocker into a real feast. Many thanks, as I revere La Gorr and Mr Shirley is such a wonderful singer and artist--glad he has become a teacher.

          The Hérodiade I’m saving for a rainy day, again, incalculable debt to be repaid.

      • manou

        Dear Camille, I am sure you will enjoy the fact that Athanaël is called Paphnuce in the original Anatole France novel.

        • Camille

          Yes, and why does that much matter here? Because it rhymes with a certain part of genitalia and could be construed to make hilarious jokes? He could be named Pappataci, too, for all it matters.

          • And Wagner wrote a whole work about Percival.

  • But it’ll still never make it into my top 250 operas.

    LOL. We agree on this opera and Massenet in general. There are a great many highlights throughout Massenet’s oeuvre that I thoroughly enjoy hearing. And I will say that few composers wrote as well for the tenor voice. But the only complete Massenet opera that I genuinely care about is Werther.

    • fletcher

      This is basically how I feel about Donizetti, hah, with the key exception being Favorite. One wonders if Jongleur or Ariane will ever return anywhere but France -- the excerpts I’ve heard are very convincing. Both Massenet and Strauss suffer from a situation where interest in the later works (eg Grisélidis or Die Liebe der Danae) drops off pretty quickly, which I’ve always found interesting while not necessarily disagreeing.

      • Camille

        maître fletcher,
        many thanks for your recount of both Nabucco and the L’heure espagnole, read a day or two ago, as it so pleased me that they both went so well for you. Dutoit is/was a valuable and special conductor and it’s wonderful he is still able to do something at his age. I similarly had a wonderful experience with Bernard Haitink, conducting here with the NY Phil a year ago. Very inspiring and affirming to experience the power of music in such fashion.

        Much as does Thaïs herself, I’ve been meditating upon the work since seeing it on Wednesday night and feel I have misjudged it to quite a degree, as its beauteous score is worthy of a lot more of respect than what one generally sees and hears around and about it. Next Saturday (or the next) I shall go to see it once more, but in the interim I was kind of idly speculating as to what you’d consider the ‘best’ recording (on Youtube, obviously) to listen to in order to further my acquaintanceship with the work?

        I’ve listened to Géori Boué’s death of Thaïs, and really disliked it so I was wondering if Doria’s or Esposito’s would be available and/or any better, or better yet, which you prefer? Any suggestions would be appreciated as I have a bit of catching up to do. And no Sills, please, as I could not tolerate her wobble back in the day (1976 or so) when I had opportunity to hear her in the flesh, if you will pardon that image.And, sorrowfully, Moffo is unmentionable in this role, much as I regret it as ten years earlier it would have been sublime.

        Donizetti repeated himself so much and was so facile that it’s easy to be bored and/or to diss him for those faculties (and that’s a shame), but requires a bit of digging plus a big shovel. I like Favorite, too, but in the French version and especially the interestingly forward last act. There are also things in Stuarda and Devereux I now like, after my triathlon experience, but mostly, I really loves me Lucrezia Borgia, and am just not sure quite why, either. One requires many lifetimes, or ONE lifetime devoted exclusively to Donizetti, I imagine, to get a handle on his œuvre.

        Ciao 4 now and salute the old, doughty Dorothy’s Pavilion for me when next you are there. Good times!

        • fletcher

          Camille, chère, I’ve been meditating on Thaïs in the past few days as well, so I’m glad we’re on the same page -- so much beautiful music I had previously LIKED but now I LOVE. The little quartet before the banquet and Thaïs’s fabulous entrance and gorgeous duet with Nicias, surely the saddest love music I know -- the way the voices come together at ‘demain’ and move in thirds — perfection. So let’s compare Boué, Esposito, and Doria. I really like Esposito’s more womanly sound and dislike Boué’s acidic tone -- Doria is a nice middle ground and that’s the one I’ve settled on listening to the most recently, even if there are some disappointing cuts. Sénéchal is magic and Massard as good as Bacquier. Wolff’s (Esposito) is probably the best conducted and also has Massard but I don’t care for the Nicias. Mrs JC preferred Boué to Doria, for what it’s worth.

          • Camille

            Oh thank you SO MUCH and grand merci for this bit of information. It is just a bit puzzling mrs jc would prefer Boué, but perhaps she sings more of the work and better conducted perhaps? Doria was an old glamour puss, wasn’t she?— so maybe I’ll go with her as it’s a little closer to the period, not much but a little. It’s a pity there is not a Mary Garden excerpt (or maybe there somewhere is?), as she is closest in time to the original style/period/esprit, and of course was Sybil’s protegée.

            I think Ms Pérez was very fine in many respects but I need to see it at least another time or two before drawing any hard and fast conclusions. She has a very interesting note in her voice, one of tristesse, which I admire and renders Thaïs’s conversion a lot more plausible than usually. Finley was extremely good at transforming this insufferable character into something human. The scene with the tarts (Acte I) tugging at him with floral bands was so much Parsifal it become faintly risible. The desert set (the giant Dorito which JJ described in his review), was obscenely idiotic and nearly ruined a lot of the gentle music being depicted (when en route to the nunnery).

            I’m quite sorry you will not be seeing it and will try to study the score some more, go at least another time, and give some more details. It’s a delicate work which needs to be handled with love and respect and without that, not at all. This staging makes it more a parody.

            Pardon—Mais je suis fatiguée parce que ce soir j’assitaiis au concert à Carnegie Hall et maintenant je devrais assolument dormir. Merci et bonne nuit!!!

            • Batty Masetto

              Camille adorée, I wouldn’t be too hard on the production. Consider what’s public knowledge: Paul Brown, a fine designer, withdrew his name from it (!). John Cox has worked with some of the best in the business, including Hockney, Robert Perdziola, et al., and it’s doubtful that either he or Paul Brown would have made sleazy-looking choices without something else affecting the equation. Meantime, the diva who debuted the production did not wear the cropped-hair wig for the departure from Alexandria or the pallid makeup for the final scene, both of which magically appeared this time. Somebody self-evidently insisted that singer should remain Ms. Glamour throughout, thus undermining the whole point. Cox also wound up withdrawing his name from the Capriccio revival, which starred the same soprano. If the present cast nevertheless made something persuasive of this show, after a full rehearsal period under the original director, that’s also suggestive, isn’t it? The details will probably never be known, but hearing what this truly admirable pair was able to do with it, I find myself wondering what the whole production might have been if they’d been in on it from the start.

            • Baron Douphol

              Did no one at the Met think of looking in their archives at the first Met production? The desert, Alexandria, it was all there in Josef Urban’s production. Of course, that was for Jeritza. But Fleming certainly has great reclame of her own. Thais, one of the absolutely Grandest French opera of all treated so shabbily. And this was a co-production. Didn’t Chicago chip in? Thankfully the cast was excellent. Actually it was one of the best roles I’ve heard Fleming do and quite a surprise.

        • I think Massenet’s scores probably deserve more attention in general than they get. He was a VERY competent composer.

          • Kenneth Conway

            I would even go so far as to say that Massenet was a very GREAT composer. Melodic and orchestral gorgeousness should count for something, I feel.

            • Lohenfal

              Would that Massenet be performed more, and Puccini, so strongly influenced by him, less. I exchanged my subscription tickets to 2 Puccini operas for Thaïs and Cendrillon. What a welcome change!

  • LF

    Sounds lovely, shall have to wait until 20th Jan 2018 to hear it on d’Radio though!

  • MisterSnow

    So when is someone going to do a Thais with the original “wardrobe malfunction”?

  • Willym

    Designer Paul Brown passed away November 13 -- a brief outline of his work appears at the ROH website:

    • hai lui

      I especially enjoyed his Glyndebourne Fairy Queen -- inventive and delightful

      • VERY memorable. A marvellous production all round. (I saw it in Paris.)

  • Ivy Lin

    I was at the performance on Saturday night. Gerald Finley was ill and Bradley Garvin went on instead. He’s been singing comprimario roles since 1993 but he totally killed it. I also reviewed Brigadoon.

    • Porgy Amor

      Excellent write-up (you like the Massenet opera more than I do).

      One of my earliest live opera experiences had Garvin as Don Giovanni, out here in the provinces. A couple of future singers-of-note were in the cast, though, and I was able to say I heard them when.

    • Lohenfal

      Thanks for the review, Ivy. It’s unfortunate you couldn’t see Finley, but it looks as if Garvin was a capable substitute.

      Yes, those difficult high notes did create some problems for Pérez, but she did manage creditably. Anything written for Ms. Sanderson would take advantage of her remarkable extension, and of course force anyone appearing afterward in such a role to deal with these problems. In any case, I felt that those moments didn’t impair Pérez’s work as a whole, and I definitely found her to be more appealing and interesting than Fleming was 9 years ago.

      I hope your increasingly rare visits to the Met aren’t the result of the current offerings. The programming is less varied than it once was, but here and there are to be found some worthy efforts, such as this Massenet.

      • Ivy Lin

        Well this season is very slow, especially the fall part of the Met season. In the winter/spring I’m going more: Tosca (w. both Yoncheva and Netrebko), Parsifal, Semiramide, Elektra, Luisa Miller, Cendrillon.

        • Lohenfal

          In a way, this season reminds me of 2015-16, when most of the interesting projects took place later on. Most of what I saw then also was in the spring. One would think the Met would try to galvanize audience interest right from the start, but such is not the case. Of course, their original intention was to have Netrebko’s Norma and the new Forza in the early months, so the absence of these is really noticeable.

          • Ivy Lin

            Even this Thais was supposed to have been Yoncheva and Domingo and an HD. There were a lot of adjustments/schedule changes that kind of led to this very meh fall Met season.

            • fletcher

              The audience at yesterday’s HD actually started laughing when Yoncheva was listed as the star of three (!) of the upcoming broadcasts.

            • Porgy Amor

              Well, you know, I went to see some HD a couple seasons back — the Manon Lescaut with Alagna and Opolais, I believe — and my friend and I were waiting for it to begin, talking about the broadcasts remaining in the season. This man seated in front of us turned around, very angry, and joined in to let loose on that damned fool Peter Gelb, because he had not included all three of Radvanovsky’s Donizetti queens in the HD lineup. He wanted three with the same singer and even the same composer (and the same stage director, for that matter).

              On a popular Facebook group that I and others here follow, “Why isn’t this an HD?” is the refrain for every one of the 15 or so operas that do not get one.

              Take it away, boys: