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!