Hampson/Guiseppe Sabbatini/Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine/Yves Abel
Decca 466 766-2 [147
Feelings are mixed about this opera, about which Rodney Milnes, in his
fascinating liner essay, writes "it is still hard not to sound defensive
when writing about Massenet". Thais (1894) by Jules Massenet
(1842-1912) is about a man and a woman at cross-purposes, who meet briefly
before a tragic ending for both. A mature courtesan, her life style was of
one-week relationships. Therefore, regrettably for us, the tenor lead, the
excellent Guiseppe Sabbatini, fades from centre stage after Act One,
leaving the two Americans Renee Fleming & Thomas Hampson
to shoulder the main burden.
Thais renounces the flesh, but dies before she is immured in a narrow cell
to await Jesus; the fundamentalist bigot Athanael discovers too late that
his love was less pure than he believed. A lot of the music is religiose
and mawkish, and you may feel that you hear the Meditation too many
times (though it is always salutary to hear popular favourites in their original
context). Some of the scenes are constructed cunningly, with cross-references
that are discussed by Milnes.
The performance and recording are splendid and make the best possible case
for this relatively neglected opera, which was a mainstay of the Paris repertoire
for half a century. I found the central confrontation and conversion scene
in Act Two exciting, indeed gripping, but lost patience with the last Act.
The three lead parts are taken magnificently, Renee Fleming's singing luscious
and a continual cause for wonder and delight. The Bordeaux orchestra too
makes a fine sound, and I should guess these may become demonstration discs
for 19 C romantic opera enthusiasts. Yves Abel impresses in his pacing
and ardour, and the recorded balance achieved in the Salle Franklin in Bordeaux
is just right. My rating therefore ignores my personal reservations about
the work itself, and Massenet enthusiasts need not hesitate.
Peter Grahame Woolf
and Colin Clarke adds
The classic recording team of James Lock and Simon Eadon has provided the
ideal recording quality with which to do this neglected opera justice at
last. A performance with a cast as strong as this has been a long time in
coming but should set the record straight. Everybody, but everybody knows
the Méditation for solo violin and orchestra (here magically
realised by Renaud Capuçon). Few realise its import. This is the turning
point of the drama, when Thaïs gains some sort of enlightenment and
changes her ways from Salome-like seductress to humble supplicant. Heard
in context, it takes on all manner of layers of meaning completely lacking
from its usual function as an orchestral 'pop'.
Thomas Hampson, who takes the part of the young Cenobite Athanaël, brings
all of his easy authority to his extended monologues. Athanaël's stated
aim at the start is to turn Thaïs from her evil sensuous ways and the
(at that point) certainty of his views comes through in the solidity of his
voice. Hampson is capable of great tenderness, too, when he recalls Thaïs
from his youth ('Hélas! Enfant encore'). Act One is very much
Athanaël's act: although she appears towards the end of Act One, Thaïs
comes into her own in Act Two. Giuseppe Sabbatini also impresses as Thaïs'
lover Nicias, who in the process of falling under her spell has lost all
of his possessions. He is strong of voice, but like Hampson has the ability
to melt his tone effectively.
When Fleming (as Thaïs) initially enters, she is somewhat tremulous
in comparison, her voice not quite gorgeous enough. Although later in Act
2 she convinces much more, her soliloquy, 'O messager de Dieu' is still not
completely involved. She seemingly luxuriates in her own voice rather than
being completely carried away by her part. Her prayer to Venus should make
us feel sorry for her, but Fleming is simply not vulnerable enough, a point
made explicit when Athanaël prays and the effect is totally heartfelt.
Fleming does, however, give her all to the unforgettable duet at the close
of the opera.
The one thing that binds this performance together is the conducting of Yves
Abel. This is his first project for Decca, and he impresses by his masterful
grasp of Massenet's characteristic sound and, above all, dramatic pacing.
Just one example is the opening prelude, which sets the scene beautifully.
By lightening the violin tone, the atmosphere is at once beautiful and authentic.
The Divertissement of the second act gives the orchestra a chance
to sparkle, an opportunity they clearly enjoy. All of the subsidiary parts
are deserving of praise: perhaps special mentions should go to Elisabeth
Vidal's perfectly pitched, pure-of-tone, evocative Enchantress and Enkelejda
Shkosa's characterisation of the small part of Albine.