By Jane Rosenberg
Orientalism, sin, sex, and religion: Jules Massenet’s opera, Thaïs, has it all (and a thrilling Placido Domingo to boot). A lavish production, now on stage at the Los Angeles Opera, revels in the nineteenth century fascination with extravagance versus asceticism but is oddly bereft of sexual content. The story, taken from Anatole France’s 1890 novel, Thaïs, features a courtesan turning from a life of lust in Alexandria to the chastity of a convent in the Egyptian desert through the ministrations of a fervent monk.
The Thaïs of the beautiful Georgian soprano, Nino Machaidze, however, seems chaste throughout – more like a noble presence who trades worldly riches for a simpler life, rather than a woman who accrues wealth and position through her obvious charms and then gives it all up for the Christian promise of eternal life. The result is not uninteresting: less an abrupt turnaround from Eros-inflamed goddess to pious innocent as is typical of most productions. But though director Nicola Raab has made Thaïs’ transition more believable, in the process she has sacrificed the extremes of behavior that make for a fascinating portrait of a courtesan. The result is a tepid Thaïs, not in voice, for Machaidze gives it her all, but in manner.
On the other hand, Placido Domingo’s Athanaël is a powerhouse of tormented passions: in turn pious, angry, jealous, loving, and lustful. Making a transition in his seventies from tenor to baritone, Domingo is ageless, singing with an expressive warmth that envelops the house. In monkish long hair and dressed in rags, he inhabits his own world – true to the opera and distant from the oddly populated environment created by the scenery and costumes of designer, Johan Engels.
There is no doubt that this is a sumptuous and gorgeous staging, but it has problems. We open on cenobitic monks in a monastery outside of Thebes, Egypt in the fourth century A.D. Instead of the banks of the Nile, we are in what looks like the suggestion of a three-story library in an indeterminate place during the Industrial Revolution. Instead of monks dressed in the manner of Domingo’s Athanaël, we have men who seem to be Oxford University dons, outfitted in academic robes. The scenery and props originated with the Gothenburg Opera in Sweden and favor a nineteenth century look. The set revolves for the second scene of Act One and, instead of the Alexandrian estate of Nicias, Thaïs’ current lover, we are in a French theater, populated with all manner of “actresses” dressed in flamboyantly beautiful costumes culled from nineteenth century opera and theater posters.
It’s dazzling but perplexing, unmooring us from any scenic cues as to where we are. And when Thaïs makes her grand entrance, she wears a golden dress weighed down with trim and jewels and laden with bird plumage – a twenty-first century version of a nineteenth century version of an Egyptian queen’s costume. The outfit inhibits her movements – she is no lithe and seductive courtesan – and because she never touches her lover, Nicias, when singing of their shared passion, the moment falls flat.
Queenly rather than sexy, Machaidze’s first act gets off to a shaky start – her voice lacking in subtlety and nuance. It is in the second act “Mirror Aria,” in the beautiful jewel-box set of her boudoir, when we begin to hear more delicate shadings of tone and texture, which culminate in her ravishing duet of Act Three with Domingo.
As Nicias, tenor Paul Groves was a likable presence, whose voice also gained in luster as the evening progressed. As the slave girls, Crobyle and Myrtale, Hae Ji Chang and Cassandra Zoe Velasco chirped and laughed as required and were adorable in their Scheherazade-like outfits. Milena Kitic proved an elegant and creamy voiced Albine, the abbess who takes Thaïs into the convent.
Portraying the old monk, Palemon, bass Valentin Anikin lacked compassion as spiritual advisor to Athanaël, his voice rather remote and aloof. Putting Palemon and his monks in dusty tuxedos with top hats for the monastery scene of Act Three was a baffling choice. And again, instead of a monastery, they idle for nearly the entire act in the ragged seats of a broken down theater in the desert with a backdrop of sand dunes, which are obvious depictions of a woman’s breasts.
Athanaël, more dead than alive, languishes in the monastery, possessed by his desire for Thaïs and haunted by a vision of her death. Rushing to the convent, now in the same desert set where the monks had idled, he finds a dying Thaïs.
Athanaël, however, doesn’t find her on her deathbed or, as in the 2008 Met production, enthroned like a Byzantine Madonna. Instead, on a raised platform, dressed in a satin wedding gown and jewels, she awaits her apotheosis. Though an interesting interpretation, she stands apart from Athanaël who grovels below her, isolating the two in physical space (a metaphor for their psychic isolation from one another). However, one longed for their parting to have a more intimate connection before Thaïs’ soul rises to heaven, leaving a suffering Athanaël behind – an Athanaël who has now come to crave worldly love for Thaïs above all else
Though the plot, as handled by Massenet’s librettist, Louis Gallet, greatly abridges the novel, omitting details that would make transitions and characters clearer, Massenet fills in the gaps with his lovely and beautifully lyric score. The LA Opera Orchestra under the direction of conductor Patrick Fournillier brings out both the tenderness and urgency of the music. And Robert Cani, the solo violinist responsible for playing the haunting symphonic intermezzo known as “Meditation” does so with a stirring simplicity.
This is an opera of contrasts: earthly passion versus spiritual calling, voluptuousness versus severity, the here and now versus eternity. Massenet’s music balances these extremes with a graceful score that lingers long after the production ends. We are fortunate in Los Angeles to have Thaïs performed here for the first time and with the incomparable Domingo at its heart.
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Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of LA Opera.
To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children. Jane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.