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.
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
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
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
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.