The history of the cinema is full of short-lived fads. One of
the very oddest has to have been a brief fashion in the mid-1910s
for filming operas with well known divas in the starring roles
- in what were, of course, “silent” films!
Thus, in 1915 audiences thrilled to Geraldine Farrar, directed
by no less than Cecil B. DeMille, in a filmed version of Carmen
was, of necessity, entirely voiceless.
And just two years
later, they could emote - if not actually sing along - with Mary
Garden in her similarly mute portrayal of Thaïs
Madame Garden had actually taken the lead in the American premiere
of Massenet’s opera and was a renowned interpreter of the
composer’s soprano roles.
Audiences for Garden’s film would probably already have
been quite familiar with its story, for the life of St Thaïs
- an almost certainly mythical personage but one whose feast
day is still celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church every 8
October - was a popular subject for contemporary writers, musicians
It had inspired not only a novel by Anatole France (1890) and
Massenet’s opera (1894), but a play by the almost entirely
forgotten Paul Wilstach (1911) and then a whole sequence of films.
The (lack of) quality of the earliest, made in France in 1911
by Louis Feuillade, may be deduced from the fact that its director
made no less than 89 other feature films in that same year. A
Hollywood movie followed in 1914 and then two more in 1917 -
Mary Garden’s version and an apparently rather avant-garde
Modern viewers, living in a more secular world, may, however,
be less familiar with the story - and even classical music buffs
may know little more than the ubiquitous Méditation
yet may still be surprised to find that it is accompanied by
a wordless chorus in its original stage manifestation.
In brief, Thaïs, “a corrupt priestess of the cult
of Venus” in fourth century Roman Egypt and, we are led
with minimal subtlety to infer, a high-class prostitute to boot,
is turned from her wicked ways by the sanctimonious monk Athanaël.
In fact, she is not only reformed but inspired to enter a convent.
Athenaël subsequently realises that, in “saving” Thaïs,
he has fallen in love with her. He rushes to the convent to release
her from her vows and claim her for his own but, as he vainly
attempts to convince her to return with him to the joys of the
world, Thaïs dies in a vision of heavenly bliss, leaving
the bereft monk utterly distraught.
Such a story offered plenty of opportunities for Victorian-era
audiences to indulge in the moral hypocrisy that we now see as
frequently characteristic of the times. They could ostensibly
condemn the harlot but simultaneously derive a secret and illicit
thrill from all the naughtiness exhibited before them on stage
- quite literally so at the 1894 premiere of Massenet’s
opera when a broken dress strap resulted in the unanticipated
but dramatic exposure to presumably bemused theatregoers of leading
lady Sybil Sanderson’s breasts.
Apart from its fascination with the concept of the Fallen Woman,
the way in which the old medieval legend of St Thaïs was
reinvented also offers yet another example of the anti-clericalism
widespread in late 19th
and early 20th
artistic circles. Whereas the traditional story had portrayed
Athanaël as a holy figure, genuinely concerned for Thaïs’s
redemption, Massenet, following France’s novel, makes it
plain that beneath the surface he is tortured by sexual temptation
and frustration. He thereby joins a list of clerical targets
that includes the vengeful Grand Brahmin in Minkus’s La
, (1877), the lascivious Archdeacon of Paris
in Franz Schmidt’s Notre Dame
(1906) and the high
priest Ramfis from Verdi’s Aïda
is probably best characterised as just plain nasty.
These days most of us will be far more likely to sympathise with
the liberal moral philosophy of the lovely Thaïs - apostrophised
by the chorus as “Rose of Alexandria! Beautiful, mysterious
- desired by all!” - rather than the less than appealing
manifesto espoused by the grim Athanaël: “mortification
of the flesh - love of suffering - acts of penance”. And
the score itself strongly implies - by giving the leading lady
such ravishingly coloured melodies - that Massenet, an anti-clerical
sympathiser himself, would have been on his heroine’s side
of the argument too.
Renée Fleming first sang the role of Thaïs with Washington
Concert Opera in 1991 and, in the subsequent two decades, honed
her performance to the finest level. As she herself says in her
interview with Placido Domingo on this DVD, the range of the
role suits her voice and its silky, creamy tones perfectly -
but let us not overlook the fact that Miss Fleming can also act.
She may have been just a couple of months short of her 50th
at the time of this performance, but she is entirely convincing
as a flirtatious and seductive courtesan for whom even a monk
might risk his soul. She looks, moreover, as if she is genuinely
enjoying her role and the final showy flourishes with which she
rounds off her big arias justifiably have the audience at her
Thomas Hampson’s role is far less glamorous. Indeed, in
his first scene with his fellow monks in the desert it is positively
dour - though it is thereby entirely in character. But his strong,
authoritative voice dominates all others on stage except for
that of Renée Fleming and, a big man to boot, he also
has the strong physical presence that draws an audience’s
eyes. The Fleming/Hampson partnership has already tackled Thaïs
a generally very well received CD
and I cannot see any lessening in the quality of either
of the voices taking the leading roles on this new DVD.
As one might expect from the Met, this is not an especially radical
production even though its setting has been shifted forwards
by a millennium and a half. Clothing and props indicate that
we are in the very era of the opera’s premiere - the fin
- though still, it would appear in Egypt.
That allows for some gorgeously elaborate costuming, of which
the DVD cover gives an indication: Renée Fleming’s
six dresses were designed by Christian Lacroix, no less. The
stage sets are all quite functional, rather than especially elaborate,
and do not distract from the action taking place on and around
them. The only striking oddity occurs in the very final scene
where, instead of placing the fatally ailing Thaïs on a
horizontal deathbed as one might have expected, the nuns seem
to have put her onto an uncomfortable-looking upright chair.
Perhaps, though, they anticipated that she might want to sing
a farewell duet with her adoring monk?
From the point of view of physical appearances, the subsidiary
roles have been well cast. In the opening scene, Palémon,
the leader of the community of Cenobite monks, is suitably biblical
in appearance and, from certain angles, a dead ringer for Finlay
Currie playing St Peter in the 1950s film Quo Vadis
I guess is quite appropriate. His female counterpart, the quite
generously-proportioned mother superior of Thaïs’s
convent, certainly doesn’t look as if she leads an especially
ascetic life but convinces nevertheless in a rounded Chaucerian
manner. Tenor Michael Schade makes his character, Athanaël’s
friend Nicias, into a suitably plump, well-fed and self-satisfied
sybarite, and his sexual playthings, Crobyle and Myrtale, are
convincingly seductive tarts - though most definitely down a
peg or three in the whoring profession from Thaïs herself.
The Met orchestra plays very well throughout under Jesus López-Cobos’s
flexible and sensitive direction. Concertmaster David Chan plays
violin solo quite exquisitely and
fully deserves the roar of audience approval that he receives
in his solo curtain call.
Gary Halvorson’s direction of the High-Definition film
recording is generally fine. However, somewhere along the line
the decision has been taken that viewers watching this production
at home are to be treated rather differently from the audience
in the opera house. The latter are left unmolested to suspend
their disbelief and to engage fully in the story and its overwrought
emotions - but the DVD doesn’t allow us to do that. Between
virtually every scene the cameras go backstage to film the singers
stepping out of character and exiting or coming on to the stage,
while an army of stagehands laboriously shifts the scenery around
them. The whole carefully-created mood and atmosphere established
by the action on stage is thereby repeatedly disrupted. And,
if that isn’t bad enough, one or two camera shots of the
on-stage action are actually filmed from the wings so that we
see the singers’ backs and, beyond those, the paying audience,
reminding us that this is just, after all, a bit of staged theatre.
That is taking the idea of Brechtian alienation several steps
too far and results, at least for me, in a definite case of “more
Placido Domingo has been brought in to host the performance for
us and lead us through the plot. He can, it has to be said, be
a little gushing and luvvie-like at times - “only a very
special soprano can sing the title role”, he opines - whoever
can he be referring to? There are three extra “behind the
scenes” segments on the DVD, though none is very substantial.
In the first, Domingo chats generally to Renée Fleming
as she heads for her dressing room. The second gives us a closer
look at some of the elaborate costumes, one of which approximates,
so it seems, to wearing a dress made out of papier-mâché.
And in the third Thomas Hampson and Renée Fleming briefly
discuss their roles with Domingo. Each could have been longer
and more detailed but are pleasant and interesting enough, as
well as giving us an opportunity to hear the artists in their
real-life personae and using their normal, everyday voices.