Jules Massenet left us two glorious operas: Manon and Werther, two charming lyric works, Cendrillon and Don Quichotte, and over two dozen other works for the stage seldom heard or seen these days, among those Thaïs, which he titled a comédie lyrique.
In Massenet’s Thaïs the monk Athanaël, attempts to convert the courtesan Thaïs 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 in her altogether to the baritone playing the saintly monk and to the opening night’s audience.
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 dramatic excitement.
In a recording all we can get is beautiful music while we try not to let our minds wander, and some superb sopranos have recorded Thaïs notably among the best looking and sounding Anna Moffo and Renée Fleming, both of whom delivered excellent versions of Ô mon miroir fidèle, rassure-moi?
As for Athanaël, the role has attracted a number of baritones, some better equipped than others when it comes to French style and with the vocal goods to effectively sing Voilà donc la terrible citè. At the top of the list stands the French bass-baritone Gabriel Bacquier, who can be heard to great effect in the old RCA Red Seal LP opposite Beverly Sills.
The famous Meditation and a couple of duets: Baigne d’eau tes mains et tes lèvres and a terrific final one that Massenet has saved for us all along, so as to go out in a blaze of glory make the cost of any recording a much better investment than the purchase of a ticket to a live performance of Massenet’s rarity, where after being preached to far too long by Athanaël and his tiresome fellow monks we are likely to doze off.
In the UNITEL video recording, stage director Peter Konwitschny allows his staging and the set and costumes of his designer to transport the action of the opera to a time and place halfway suspended between a Las Vegas look-like setting and a surrealist incubus, to wit: Athanaël and his fellow monks sport black velour wings sprouting from their backs. Crobyle, Myrtle and the other working girls in the palace of pleasures run by Nicias are dressed in Folies-Bergère feathered numbers. The compliant tenor Roberto Sacca clad in a silver grey and black tux also equipped with matching grey wings runs the joint. The set (whatever there is) is a low-budget arrangement of platforms in a black and white void, where the only expensive items are the lines of coke Thaïs frequently uses. Not even the champagne rises up to the occasion.
If only the singers could save the show! Alas, they can’t! Nicole Chevalier and Josef Wagner cannot begin to meet the demands of the two central roles. She is riddled with an uncontrollable vibrato that at times turns into an acidy wobble, And when she goes for the final top note in Ô mon miroir fidèle, rassure-moi? she misses it, allowing it to turn into a scream. The Athanaël of Josef Wagner does not begin to remotely embrace the elusive French style and diction so essential in this role. His voice, short and tight on top becomes intolerable at extreme dynamics.
Apologies to Monsieur Massenet!
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