Two of Nobel Prize winner Anatole France’s novels were turned into operas by Jules Massenet: Thaïs
(1894) and Le Jongleur de Notre Dame
(1902). At least the former has stayed in the outskirts of the repertoire while the latter seems to have vanished for good. A search on Operabase for the next two years showed ten productions of Manon
, eight for Werther
and a single one for Thaïs
(Gothenburg, February to April 2010), Cendrillon, Don Quichotte
– but not a trace of Le Jongleur de Notre Dame
There are parallels between the two France operas besides the literary sources. Both deal with religious matters, and the relative neglect of them may have something to do with the ever-growing secularization. Thaïs
takes place on the bank of the Nile in the 4th
century. The title character is a dancer, actress and courtesan, whom Athanael, a monk, decides to convert to an upright life. He manages but realises that what has triggered him to carry this through has not been his love of God, but his selfish love of Thaïs. Thaïs dies and Athanael is left in despair by her side.
The story is rather straightforward and focuses very strongly on the two main characters. The minor roles are there primarily as representatives of two different worlds that meet: Pálemon for religion, Nicias for the world of the mundane. Massenet’s music is as luscious as ever with sweet string melodies and colourful orchestration. This score has one hit tune that most people will recognise: the Méditation réligieuse
that separates the two tableaux of the second act. We are used to hearing it as a violin solo with piano, played as an encore on innumerable violin recitals. In the original harps and strings back up the solo violin and there is even a chorus murmuring in the background. The main melody of this interlude returns on several occasions as an illustration of the bonds between Athanael and Thaïs, most prominently in the final duet. The ballet music in act II – with thrilling choreography – is atmospherically Oriental and one of the divertissements has some similarity with The Dance of the Hours
from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda.
The ballet – and possibly some extras as well – is frequently in action, giving relief to the central conflict and in the last act in particular the dynamics and movement are simply tremendous. The crowd scenes are really crowded and there are frequently several layers of action. The sets are sparse but Stefano Poda, who is more or less a one-man-team, has created evocative backdrops, more symbolic than realistic. The beautiful people in Alexandria are dressed in luxurious outfits – though I can’t say that Thaïs’s ‘breast plates’ are particularly charming. Throughout Athanael wears a simple black, ankle-length dress.
Visually the production is without doubt on a par with Massenet’s music; vocally it is also, by and large, satisfying. Barbara Frittoli sings and acts with conviction. Her vibrato can sometimes be irritatingly wide but it’s a classy voice. Her aria in act II is one of the finest moments in this opera. This is Massenet on top form, and Frittoli makes the most of it. She is also very good in the duets with Athanael. Lado Ataneli, who for some time has been one of the leading singers in, primarily, the Italian baritone repertoire, is black-voiced and powerful – almost too much so at times. He sings too much at a relentless forte – imposing but insensitive. Maurizio Lo Piccolo, who is Pálemon, is more nuanced and is the possessor of a rounded basso cantante
in the mould of José Van Dam. This is a singer I look forward to hearing again. Nicias’s part isn’t very large but through the years it has attracted many great singers. Alessandro Liberatore is a good actor and he can colour his voice to good effect but is rather dry-voiced. Chorus and orchestra make a good job and the sound can’t be faulted. The video producer has a penchant for camera movement which can be a bit tiring.
I haven’t seen another production on DVD but there is one with Eva Mei and Michele Pertusi, conducted by Marcello Viotti on Dynamic, of which I have heard good words. Of sound recordings the obvious first choice must be Yves Abel’s set with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson, where Giuseppe Sabbatini sings Nicias. In the 1970s two recordings appeared, both of them seriously flawed – and the biggest flaw was the heroine. Beverly Sills was past her best on the HMV set conducted by Lorin Maazel and Sherrill Milnes and Nicolai Gedda in characteristic form couldn’t save it. Even more out of sorts was Anna Moffo (RCA), recorded at a phase in her career when there were only remnants left of her once gorgeous voice. Neither Julius Rudel’s conducting nor Gabriel Bacquier and José Carreras in the leading male parts, were sufficient reasons to acquire it. The best option at that time was the all-French Decca set from 1961, available then on GOSR639/41, conducted by Jésus Etcheverry and with Renée Doria, Robert Massard and Michel Sénéchal. It should be available on CD.
The present set is however a good option for those who want Thaïs
on DVD. The booklet has good notes, a comprehensive synopsis and biographical note on the director, conductor and the leading singers.