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S & H International Opera Review

MASSENET: THAIS, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, Chicago, 14 December 2002 (HS)


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.

Harvey Steiman

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