In Jules Massenet’s Thaïs a monk attempts to convert a courtesan to a life of prayer and penance but discovers too late that his obsession with her is purely erotic. Eventually the courtesan dies while beholding a vision of angels that welcome her to eternal life while the randy monk collapses by her side.
That in roughly sixty words is what Thaïs is all about.
Its 1894 Paris premiere featured some naughty staging for the buxom soprano Sybil Sanderson, who during a suggestive seduction scene had a costume accident that revealed her to the baritone playing the saintly monk and to the opening night’s audience in her altogether.
The pesky censors quickly moved in and spoiled everything by demanding that Massenet excise the salacious scene. What was left until modern productions put the scene back in was a series of tableaux of monks praying, courtesans cavorting and very little drama.
In a recording all we can get is beautiful music while we try not to let our minds wander, and in this lovely recording we are regaled with the lyric soprano Erin Wall and baritone Joshua Hopkins doing all of the hard work. Both are fine artists and both are up against some heavy competition from still available recordings of this Massenet opus.
They fare well: Hopkins’ assured Voilà donc la terrible cité and Wall’s compelling Ô mon miroir fidèle, rassure-moi? are worth the price of the CHANDOS recording, which also features the famous Meditation and a couple of duets: Baigne d’eau tes mains et tes lèvres and a terrific final scene that Massenet has saved all along.
But at that point we have been preached to far too long by the tiresome monks, so much so that even Sir Andrew Davis’ conducting cannot compel us to stay awake much longer.
Rafael de Acha