As the curtain fell on the first act of "Thaïs"
at Lyric Opera of Chicago, shortly after soprano Renée Fleming
made a grand entrance looking fabulous in a midriff-baring costume,
a man sitting behind me said to his companion, "Well, I can see why
this isn't done very often." I turned around, studying his face to determine
what he meant. He was wearing a grin, and added, "Not too many sopranos
look like that."
Not too many sound like that, either, which is why
Chicago's "Thaïs" is a triumph. Not since Beverly Sills made the
title role her own some three decades ago has there been a soprano so
perfectly suited to portray the Fifth-Century Egyptian courtesan who
gives up her hedonistic life to follow a charismatic priest into the
desert to find God. Fleming has the compelling voice, the unearthly
ability to sustain a phrase with varying shades of creamy tone, and
a stage presence to bring the hard-to-believe story to life.
Singing the role on stage for the first time in the
opening performance Saturday, she had plenty of help. As the priest,
Athanaël, baritone Thomas Hampson matched her phrase for phrase,
also in a role debut. In all their scenes together, there was real electricity.
The cast was strong right down the line, the production dazzlingly colorful
and conductor Andrew Davis provided fine support from the pit. He never
let things lag but spread the big moments nicely. If the French accent
was a bit muted -- at times the music might as well have been Puccini
as Massenet -- Davis drew appropriately sumptuous sounds from the Lyric
Opera orchestra. Concertmaster Everett Zlatoff-Mirsky played the famous
violin solo in the "Meditation," the intermezzo between the second act
scenes, gracefully if slightly watery tone.
Fleming's voice seem to come in and out of focus during
the first act, but it gathered itself into a glorious outpouring in
the second and third acts, when Thaïs rejects her gilded career.
The second act is the key for Thaïs, who begins with a revealing
scene and aria, "Dis-moi que je suis belle," which Fleming plays against
a full-length mirror, finishing by hugging the mirror desperately. Having
established that Thaïs fears that no one will love her when she
loses her looks, it becomes almost believable that she would respond
as quickly as she does to Athanaël's fire-and-brimstone sermon
promising Thaïs eternal love if she would reject her current life
and endure the harshness of the desert to find God.
You can't say that the usually lyrical Hampson's voice
booms very often, but it did when he delivered those lines. The voice
also softened when he sang of Thaïs to others, suggesting that
his interest in bringing her to God had as much to do with deeply repressed
lust as it did with religious fervor. Indeed, the third act follows
Athanël as he delivers Thaïs to the sisters at a desert oasis;
the duet as he bathes the feet of Thaïs ("Baigne d'eau"), consisting
mostly of chaste parallel thirds, took on a decided erotic quality as
their voices meshed. In the penultimate scene, Athanaël confesses
that he lusts after the now-sainted former courtesan. In the final scene
goes to her to declare his love, setting up the climactic duet "C'est
toi, mon père," in which Fleming was impossibly radiant as she
remained oblivious to Athanaël's desperation.
As Nicias, Thaïs's lover at the start of the opera,
tenor Donald Kaasch brought clarity of sound and elegant phrasing. As
Palémon, the chief monk, bass Stephen Morscheck was properly
stentorian. In her short moment in the spotlight, lyric soprano Stacey
Tappan was especially beguiling as La Charmeuse, and mezzo-soprano Guang
Yang made a strong impression as Albine, the chief nun.
Paul Brown, who designed the repugnant "Falstaff" that
opened the renovated Covent Garden (and is captured forever on a DVD
starring Bryn Terfel), found a happier combination for "Thaïs."
Using vivid colors, cartoon-like desert dunes and palm trees, and a
lavish, cylindrical home for the title character, Brown found a nice
balance that fell short of kitsch but seemed in tune with the perfumed
character of Massenet's music and the unlikely story. It's unclear what
was accomplished by updating the period from the Fifth Century to some
time around the late 19th century, except to allow a more eclectic mix
of costumes. Nicias was seen wearing white tie and starched shirt under
his Egyptian robes.
Veteran opera director John Cox generally kept the
focus on the story, the many confrontations coming off well. Some distracting
hand movements were puzzling, as was an inexplicably magical urn from
which Thaïs coaxes smoke as she prays to Venus in an early scene.
But in the end, the opera sinks or flies on the voices
of the main characters. With Fleming and Hampson, it soars.