Here at the Met Jules Massenet’s Thaïs is the third in line, after his much more popular Manon and wonderfully gloomy Werther, but soon to be followed by a fourth with the premiere of the delicate Cendrillon this spring. Alas, after these, not counting the one-season stand of a massive Esclarmonde in ’76, the prolific French composer is sadly underrepresented. Oh well, at least we have the four.
Thaïs was and remains a vehicle for an attractive soprano with a solid high top of the voice. The by all accounts beautiful American soprano Sibyl Sanderson struck Massenet’s creative fancy, probably more than just that, but certainly it was enough for him to write the role for her; Geraldine Farrar and Maria Jeritza were two at the Old Met before our time; Beverly Sills and Renée Fleming are two within memory, and now we have Ailyn Pérez.
Pérez is sexy and engaging as Thaïs, yet her inner torments about eternity are well portrayed. These at first are more or less will she be lookin’ this hot forever, but later concerns well up about her soul in the afterlife. Though Pérez has the vocal range and can summon a volume enough to curl your hair, she also gives a sense of the subtle aspects of the role. Nicely done. Brava! Standing, I cheered thus night during her curtain calls.
The trigger for her crisis is Athanaël, a Cenobite monk who, as a young man in Alexandria, fell under her spell. He fled from her arms and retreated to the desert to renounce all the pleasures in life. But he is alarmed that Alexandria seems now to be descending into an abyss of sin and, worse yet, his peace of mind is disrupted by night visions and arousing, seductive dreams of Thaïs. Baritone Gerald Finley pours out a luxurious vocal line, rich with nuances, particularly in his words of wonder about Alexandria upon his return. One admires the sustained intensity of his character. Athanaël is very much an evening long role: bravo also just for his endurance!
On Team Righteous, David Pittsinger is spiritual advisor Palémon, who cautions Athanael about the pitfalls of trying to rescue and reform the fallen Thaïs. Said caution is, of course, to no avail, else the opera would be only one scene. On the other end of the evening Sara Couden is Albine, the Abbess of the convent at which Thaïs is reconditioned and absolved.
On Team Decadent, Nicias is a friend from Athanaël’s misspent youth, naturally someone to look up when seeking a good time in Alexandria, but, big question, will he be on board about the 'rescue Thaïs' thing? Ultimately 'yes' since Thaïs, it turns out, is Nicias’s lover, but for a steep price. He can't afford her. Tenor Jean-François Borras has the high range and expression to make him a foil for Athanaël’s goodness and dark desperation. Nicias is surrounded by his personal Guard (Jeongcheol Cha), other beauties, including Crobyle (France Bellemare) and Myrtale (Megan Marino), and a crowd of actresses, actors, and philosophers. Deanna Breiwick is La Charmeuse; Syrena Nikole is the solo dancer. Most of the ballet music Massenet wrote for Thaïs is cut here.
Conductor Emmanuel Villaume is a master of Massenet, in my opinion, first with Manon a few seasons back and now this season with Thaïs. Conspicuous are the energy and pulse of the music, combined with the orchestral articulation he coaxes from the pit. Met Orchestra Concertmaster David Chan played the haunting Meditation; Susan Jolles contributed on the harp.
I said in a previous review (when la Fleming brought it here in 2008) that, more or less, except for the vibrant colors, the Thaïs by John Cox reminds one of the productions from back in the days of the Old Met: not quite filling the stage, static, clunky, and, here’s the point, slow and noisy to change. The pause between Scene I in the Thebaid desert in Egypt and Scene II at Nicias’s den of sin was interminable, speaking of eternity, a real buzz kill, trumped only by the length of the first intermission. Though this production was originally created for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, it was constructed by, among others, the Metropolitan Opera Shops. Surely they could have put in some structural revisions to adapt it to the Met’s famous scene change gadgets, the turntables and elevators.
This said, the evening had its full share of Massenet’s magical touch. Don’t miss it, catch it while you can.
Reviewed performance: November 15, 2017
Photos: Chris Lee
Wishing all a happy Thanksgiving. J