Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs was premiered in 1894. Since then it has been a little beyond the frontier of the standard operatic repertoire. It’s periodically revived for star sopranos. The Met’s current production is a vehicle for Renée Fleming. Without her there would be little reason to mount the opera. While it has moments that work quite well, its length far exceeds its worth. So how did she do? Very well. Well enough to justify reviving the work.
To start she was radiant in all her beauty. There’s not a wrinkle on her forehead though she’ll soon turn 50. Much of her gorgeous face is immobile. Fortunately, she can move her mouth and her vocal cords. Her cosmetic surgeon is surely at the very top of his field. Vocally as well as visually she was in fine shape. Her sound was luscious and she spun out beautiful pianissimi that made the most of Massenet’s patchy score. “Miroir, dis-moi que je suis belle” was sung with feeling and expression except for a little difficulty with its climactic high D. The aria is a precursor of the Marschallin’s soliloquy at the end of Rosenkavalier’s first act. Both characters muse sadly about growing old – fatal for the career of Thaïs and depressing for Strauss’s princess. My only quibble with Fleming’s interpretation was that she was too wholesome for the part and looked the picture of health during her death scene. After she died I expected her to open her eyes and tell everyone that she was just fooling.
Designer Christian Lacroix was recruited to create Ms Fleming’s costumes. The gowns he made are in the style of the mid 19th century which is where the action was moved. Why here rather than the early Christian era which is where both Anatole France’s novel and the original staging are set is unanswerable. Why a high profile designer was needed to make Fleming look like a Victorian overstuffed sofa is another imponderable. But what do I know about couture? Obviously nothing as all the women at the performance I talked to loved the outfits. I thought Joe the Plumber could have fitted the diva with better duds. I hoping for something like Hedy Lamar’s diaphanous dresses in Samson and Delilah.
Thomas Hampson was fine as Athanaël the sexually challenged Cenobite monk, though he tended to bellow his way through some of his part’s more forceful sections. He also made a lot of funny faces which were accentuated by the close up shots. Michael Schade (Nicias) has a serviceable light tenor and Alain Vernhes was sensible as Palémon the old monk who warns Athanaël to stay away from loose women – good advice that always falls on deaf ears. Concertmaster David Chan played the opera’s best known number, The Meditation, with beauty and a sure tone. Jesus López-Cobos conducted. His grasp of the score was authoritative. The Met’s orchestra played very well for him. Thaïs is a score outside the mainstream that deserves a production by a major house three or four times a century.
Finally, the sets were not credited to anyone in the program. Opera News says they were designed by Paul Brown. They were serviceable though the desert looked like it was made of Lego blocks. The video direction was again unobtrusive as it should be – a relief after the in-your-face presentation of the Berlioz Faust. The Met can now put this piece back in the warehouse for another generation until the next beautiful diva arrives. In the meantime, we can reengage Ms Fleming as the Met’s HD hostess. Placido Domingo filled in for her during this broadcast. He was obviously unprepared using cue cards during his interviews. In addition to being a great singer Fleming is terrific as the image of these broadcasts. I hope she’s available for the remaining ones.