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S & H Opera Review

Massenet, Thaïs English National Opera at the Barbican Cond: Emmanuel Joël, 23rd September 2003 (CC)

Hearing the well-loved ENO out of home waters is an enlightening experience. Stuck up in my previous home of the cheap gods at the Coliseum, the sound picture was very different from my stalls seat at the Barbican. There is a depth to the strings that obviously does not carry long distances, but which suits Massenet’s easy-flowing lyricism and invention perfectly.

Thaïs is a marvelous opera (one of twenty-five from this composer’s pen). Its fate so far of having one excerpt bludgeoned to death (Thaïs’ ‘Méditation’) and the rest of it basically ignored is surely not fair. Yves Abel’s 1998 recording with Renée Fleming in the title role on Decca 466 766-2 acted as a timely reminder of the piece’s stature, but, in the UK at least, we have had to wait until now for a live performance (and a concert performance at that): Thaïs was last performed in London by the Chelsea Opera Group in 1989, and the last fully-professional staged production was way back in 1926 at the Royal Opera House. As the accompanying Press Release says, ‘This Home-Away Season is an opportunity for ENO to invite international guest artists to perform alongside ENO principals in the original language’. Hence Massenet from English National, sung in French, and with the welcome casting of Elizabeth Futral in the title role and (perhaps a little less happily) Richard Zeller as the monk Athanaël. Bravo for preserving the French: Massenet’s innate and subtle feeling for his own language should not be disturbed.

The story of Thaïs is a touching one. Athanaël, a monk, vows to save the soul of Thaïs, a dancer and courtesan who leads Alexandria in sinful ways and who has been in the service of Niceas, an old acquaintance of Athanaël’s. The orchestral Méditation represents Thaïs’ conversion: she leaves with Athanaël for a life of prayer and penance. Once back with the religious commune, Athanaël dreams of Thaïs’ death, which, it turns out, is a reality. A tender death scene concludes the opera.

So, no staging, just the occasional change of dress for Thaïs herself. And an opportunity to focus on Massenet’s expertise with his genre, for this is supreme dramatic enterprise. As with Wagner and Mozart, not a single note is wasted. The conductor, Emmanuel Joël makes a speciality of his home repertoire, and his understanding of it showed right from the word go.

The orchestral introduction, despite some loose ensemble, brought the audience right into Massenet’s sound-world. That experienced ENO favourite, Clive Bayley took the part of Palémon, an elderly monk who counsels Athanaël against worldly concerns. If he did not look the part (too young), his smooth legato, his focus and this excellent diction nearly made up for it. Unfortunately, just when his counsel implied wisdom, he just looked green rather than wise. Difficult to credit that he sang Hunding in the ENO/Barbican ‘Valkyrie’ in October 2002. Soloists (uncredited) from the ever-excellent ENO chorus took the solo monks, all of whom welcomed the physically imposing American baritone Richard Zeller, making his ENO debut. A large man with a warm voice that does not quite match up to the size of its owner, his outpouring against the ‘foul priestess’ (Thaïs) did not quite square with the dramatic situation. The orchestra, well trained to the last, refused to drown him here, as elsewhere.

In fact the orchestra evoked the essence of the music in scene after scene. The brightness and openness of Nicias’ house in Alexandria (Act 1 Scene 2) was vivid; in contrast, the anguished harmonies and dark scoring of Act 3 Scene 1 (as Thaïs and Athanaël stagger their way under a blistering sun towards a commune) similarly evoked the scene perfectly.

Tenor Paul Charles Clarke told Nicias’ tale of fiscal woe (‘for her I sold my vineyards …’) most characterfully. The duet of Nicias and Athanaël worked beautifully. It was but one reflection of the carefully thought-out casting, as the two voices made for a most satisfactory combination.

None of this prepared for the entrance of Thaïs herself. Elizabeth Futral has previously distinguished herself at the Barbican in Benvenuto Cellini under the LSO and Sir Colin Davis. She was no less impressive here. Looking from the start confident and beautiful when she described herself as ‘l’idole fragile’, her quasi-angelic sound made one believe her. Her affecting ability to float notes from her higher register was soon established, her dramatic abilities (through her voice mainly) making Nicias’ regrets at her departure (underpinned by a slow-moving orchestra, a held breath in music) all the more believable. Every word Thaïs uttered on this particular evening was gripping. She could act the powerful seductress as effectively as the repentant supplicant. It is difficult to say what her finest moment was, but perhaps her monologue in Act 2 seemed most representative of her art. Here she was more subtle than the orchestra by some margin, the opening out of her voice at ‘Dis-moi que je suis belle’ superb. She sounded young and beautiful, her acting putting in the shade Athanaël’s rather embarrassing, near-complete immobility. Futral hits her notes bang in the centre (how refreshing to hear this); she has power as well as delicacy. If only Zeller could have been more ‘transfigured’ at his vision of Thaïs in eternal life.

The orchestral set pieces (Divertissement, Méditation) were excellent. The orchestra’s leader Barry Griffiths gave a creditable account of the latter’s solo violin part, with tasteful portamenti. Only the last note slithered unsurely up to its target.

The ENO Chorus was on top form. Even their whispered repetitions of ‘Thaïs’ were most effective in the Vision on Act 1. Of the smaller parts, the two slave girls Sarah-Jane Davies and Stephanie Marshall delighted (it has to be said that Davies was the stronger of the two). Well-loved mezzo Rebecca de Pont Davies brought a lovely, creamy sound to the role of Mère Albine. Her warmth of sentiment as well as of voice (she was almost Massenet’s Erda at one point) set off the final, tender farewell of Thaïs and Athanaël perfectly. This duet was imbued with waves of pure beauty and at last it seemed that Zeller had entered into Athanaël’s emotions. Also rising to the occasion, Futral hit her performance peak here, floating her final ‘Dieu’, then adding a heartfelt crescendo. Superb.

Colin Clarke

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