The Metropolitan Opera – Thaïs

Thaïs – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Louis Gallet after the novel by Anatole France [sung in French]

Thaïs – Renée Fleming
Nicias – Michael Schade
Athanaël – Thomas Hampson
Palémon – Alain Vernhes
Guard – Trevor Schuenemann
Crobyle – Alyson Cambridge
Myrtale – Ginger Costa-Jackson
La Charmeuse – Leah Partridge
Albine – Maria Zifchak
Cebonite Monks – Daniel Clark Smith, Roger Andrews, Kurt Phinney, Richard Pearson & Craig Montgomery

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera
Jesús López-Cobos

John Cox – Production
Christian Lacroix – Renée Fleming’s costumes
Duane Schuler – Lighting
Sara Jo Slate – Choreography

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 8 December, 2008
Venue: The Metropolitan Opera, New York City

A scene from Massenet’s 'Thaïs' with Alyson Cambridge as Crobyle, Thomas Hampson as Athanaël, Ginger Costa-Jackson as Myratale and Renée Fleming (upper right) in the title role. Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan OperaMetropolitan Opera’s production of Jules Massenet’s “Thaïs” – returning to the company’s repertoire in nearly three decades – was preceded by a month-long advertising blitz, including gigantic ads in what seemed to be every other bus shelter in Manhattan featuring head-shots of the immensely popular Renée Fleming dressed for the title role of an opera that is a virtuoso soprano vehicle.

Fleming and the rest of the cast – for that matter, the music itself – were nearly hamstrung by the combination of an incongruous, distracting production and disjunct direction. John Cox’s enormous sets are dominated by glaring, supersaturated turquoise and gold and hues and shades of sand and rust colors; the opening first act tableau, set in the desert amidst shattered remains of a gigantic statue and rippling sandscape, was reminiscent of the distinctive artwork from vintage RCA Red Seal LP covers.

A scene from Act II of 'Thaïs' with Zahra Hashemian (center) as the solo dancer. Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan OperaFurthermore, Thaïs’s townhouse interior was a gross miscalculation, so huge as to undermine the intimacy of the libretto and music. The costumes fused 19th- and 20th-century elements, but not always with success; for example, the distracting Christian Lacroix gown Thaïs wore in the second scene of Act One was a Paris runway disaster – a bit too over-the-top for even that over-the-top scene. The kitsch elements in the costuming and sets – including the laughably tacky tableau in the final scene – threatened to dominate the production as a whole. If MET General Manager Peter Gelb wanted kitsch, he should have approached Jeff Koons – at least Koons understands issues of scale, scope and synergy.

Renée Fleming in the title role and Thomas Hampson as Athanaël in 'Thaïs.' Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan OperaThe stage direction also left much to be desired in the handling of the male protagonist Athanaël, played by Thomas Hampson, whose grungy, dreadlocked looks suggests not so much an ascetic monk as a religious extremist, even after his friend Nicias gives him a pre-party ‘makeover’ in the second scene of the first act, then tamely takes the condescending abuse of Thaïs’s social register guests. The first act is topped off by a big wet kiss from the hostess herself. As the curtain closed, one could have easily been rooting for Thais, conveyed by Fleming as being just as smart as she is glamorous, to turn this backwards fundamentalist into a party-hearty gentleman, make her an honest woman – and give this opera a happy ending for just once. Memo to John Cox: that’s not what Massenet and librettist Louis Gallet had in mind. There were other incongruous moments, including an overly calculated lesbian kiss in the second scene of Act Two that generated snickering rather than shock.

The music-making was a different story altogether, and given that the two lead singers are arguably more suited to Strauss and Mahler than French opera, surprisingly edifying. Fleming used her amazing dynamic control, clear diction and tonal clarity to strong dramatic effect, her voice imbuing unexpected depth to the role of Thaïs, making her a complex and mercurial diva. Hampson’s baritone was sonorous throughout the first and demanding second act, and took on a more brilliant tone at times during the third one; in the role of Nicias, Michael Schade’s reedy but characterful singing conveyed the comic role quite well.

Jesus Lopez-Cobos brought surprising substance and cohesion to a score than one might assume is there by virtue of brisk pacing, emphatic playing, and some very colorful tone-painting. Concertmaster David Chan played the famous second act ‘Meditation’ with just the right amount of fervor and, thankfully, none of the treacle.

This revival of “Thaïs” is a mixed bag. Well worth the listen, and unless you’re following the supertitles, best enjoyed with eyes closed.

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