Jules MASSENET (1842-1912) Thaïs - Comédie lyrique in three acts and seven scenes
Thaïs … Eva Mei
Athanaël … Michele Pertusi (bass-baritone)
Nicias … William Joyner (tenor)
Palémon … Christoph Fel (bass)
Crobyle … Christine Buffle (soprano)
Myrtale … Elodie Méchaine (soprano)
Albine … Tiziane Carraro (mezzo)
La Charmeuse … Anna Smiech (soprano)
A servant … Enrico Masiero (tenor)
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro La Fenice di Venezia/Marcello Viotti
rec. Teatro La Fenice, Venezia, November 2002 DYNAMIC 33427 [137:00]
That ‘Meditation’ ensured
the fame of Thaïs. This is a rather stark production from
La Fenice. The minimalist sets are confined to staircases, assorted
cubes and pillars; and, in the third act, a stage littered with
crosses. At centre-stage, in the earlier scenes, there is something
resembling a chaise-longue made up of thorns or razor wire and
studded with roses.
This ‘Meditation’ is
something quite startling. In the middle of Act II, as the notorious
Alexandrian courtesan and prostitute, Thaïs, reclines on her
thorny chaise-longue, we see her dreaming in a fitful sleep.
She has been preached at by the priest Athanaël and has rejected
his God. After realizing that her beauty and attraction could
soon fade she begins to reject her world of luxury too. We see
her dream. Above and at the rear of the stage, a ‘T’ shaped-cross,
is surmounted by a scantily-clad female, who writhes over it
seductively. Her attitude slowly changes and we perceive her
forming a crucified figure. This change symbolizes the start
of Thaïs’s conversion.
Dreams figure elsewhere.
In Act I Athanaël sees a vision of Thaïs being acclaimed for
her portrayal of Aphrodite in an Alexandrian theatre. She is
surrounded by erotic dancing, most sensuously staged in this
production. Massenet’s ‘ballet’ music and the quasi-erotic ‘sea’ music
for the port of Alexandria prove, once again, that the best music
is so often reserved for the devil. Well, almost, for one of
the most moving moments comes with the final duet for Nathanaël
and the dying Thaïs. Nathanaël is now sunk in degradation as
he lusts after the sinking Thaïs. She reaches out in her last
moments to her perceived vision of heaven. Wonderful theatre
this, and Massenet responds with the most beautiful music for
Thaïs; Eva Mei seizes attention here. Her singing throughout
is colourfully expressive, first seductive and mocking and ultimately
saintly and supplicatory. Her delivery is nicely controlled,
her top notes secure, her sleek legato line easily accommodating
Massenet’s trills and coloratura contours.
Michele Pertusi is
an agreeable match especially in their Act III duets. His opposite
transition from heavenly devotion to satanic lust is well expressed.
William Joyner makes a lusty Nicias, Athanaël’s former school
friend now given over to hedonism and the fickle charms of Thaïs.
Christophe Fel’s rich bass voice distinguishes the old monk Palémon.
The supporting cast, chorus and dancers all contribute to an
eye-popping dramatic staging.
The recommended alternative
CD set is Decca 466 7662 with Renée Fleming, an outstanding
A colourful, dramatic
and satisfying production.
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