Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Thaïs (1894, revised 1898) [127.37]
Eva Mei (soprano) - Thaïs; Michele Pertusi (bass) - Athanael; William Joyner (tenor) - Nicias; Christophe Fel (bass) - Palémon; Christine Buffe (soprano) - Crobyle; Elodie Méchain (soprano) - Myrtale; Tiziana Carraro (mezzo) - Albine; Anna Smiech (soprano) - La Charmeuse; Enrico Masiero (tenor) - Servant
Orchestra and Chorus of The Teatro La Fenice, Venice/Marcello Viotti
rec. Teatro Malibran, Venice, November 2002
DYNAMIC CDS 739/1-2 [70.19 + 57.18]
Thaïs suffers from an undeservedly low reputation in some critical circles, viewed as a piece of sentimental melodrama. This is really most unfair. The original novel by Anatole France on which the opera is based is a rather subtle psychological study of the nature of religious belief and fanaticism. And the librettist Louis Gallet avoided the temptation to turn it into anything more conventional, constructing a prose text rather than the traditional verse customary in French opera (thus predating Debussy and Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande by some years) and not shirking the horrific transformation that the heroine’s conversion to Christianity wreaks upon the tortured monk who realises too late that his successful evangelism has robbed him of the one thing in life that he really desires.
Thaïs has not been a very fortunate opera on disc. Apart from the ubiquitous Meditation so beloved of violinists and some performances of the Mirror Aria included in recital discs, recordings have generally suffered from considerable drawbacks. The first sets in the 1950s were all heavily cut (among other things, one whole scene regularly went missing), the 1977 EMI set with Beverley Sills featured a leading soprano somewhat past her best, and an earlier RCA set with Anna Moffo was ruled out of court by a heroine whose voice had painfully deserted her altogether; it disappeared from the catalogue very quickly, and never appears to have resurfaced on CD. It was not until Decca’s 2000 set with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson that we had a performance and recording that did full justice to the work. That set remains available, and is also included in a box of Decca’s Massenet recordings at a reduced price; and the CDs here, drawn from live performances (it has already appeared on DVD), must inevitably be compared with that. And despite many virtues, this version must be found wanting in several key aspects.
In the first place, it is nothing like complete. There is a pointless excision of a dozen bars or so at the end of Act One; and the offstage chorus parts which Massenet later added to the Meditation - which we were given in the Moffo and Fleming sets - are omitted. They are not included in the published vocal score, but they add a sense of awe to the music which raises it from the level of the salon, and we need to have them in a complete recording. We are also robbed of the first five and the seventh movements of the ballet in the Second Act. Massenet does allow for this truncation in the vocal score, but he rewrites the music which precedes it to provide a smooth transition. Here it is simply cut; we retain the vocal sixth movement, but the rather cautious singing of Anna Smiech does not make its inclusion particularly worthwhile. In the final orchestral interlude before Thaïs’s death, Massenet makes provision for its abridgement, but what we are given here is not his suggested cut, which is actually retained, but a massive omission of some hundred bars or so earlier on.
In the second place, neither of the two leading singers in this set rise to the level of Fleming and Hampson. The role of Thaïs was originally written for Massenet’s muse (one of many) the American soprano Sybil Sanderson, for whom he had previously written his Esclarmonde. The part demands an incredible range both of emotion and tessituta, with repeated passages in the death scene that range over two-and-a-bit octaves, and one can only regret that Joan Sutherland did not follow her successful resurrection of Esclarmonde with a recording of the later Sanderson role. Eva Mei sounds slightly insecure in her opening phrase, although she soon settles down, and it is nice to hear a voice in its prime; but she sounds strained on her very highest notes, and her laughter just before the Meditation is of the wrong sort, sounding more hag-ridden than despairing.
Michele Pertusi is surprising casting as the tortured monk; he is better known for his bass roles, but he has all the high notes required and it is only the actual colour of the voice itself which lets him down, sounding at times brusque rather than fanatical. He brings plenty of expression to his words, however, and produces a real sense of character. The only other substantial role, that of the playboy Nicias, is well taken by William Joyner - Nicolai Gedda in the Sills set sounded far too old - but he lacks the required volume to override the chorus - who are very good - when it is needed.
In the third place the recorded balance, inevitably in a live recording with some distinctly intrusive stage noises, is not ideal. The orchestra play well, although the violins are slightly underpowered in places, and the internal balances match those in the 2000 Decca set - annoyingly enough the best playing of all came on the RCA LPs, an early experiment in surround sound. Time and again important figures in the orchestra are smothered by the voices, which are placed decidedly forwardly in the sound picture - probably the result of the original DVD balance.
By comparison with the other complete recordings of the opera, this must be rated as the second best and quite decidedly superior to anything recorded before 2000; but it is also quite definitely a second best to the Fleming and Hampson set under Yves Abel. Those same two protagonists also recorded their roles for DVD in a Metropolitan opera production under Jesus López-Cobos, but unless you are particularly attracted by the visual element - not particularly worthwhile - the Abel set is worth the additional expense. It gives us every note that Massenet wrote. It also includes the complete French text and translation; the booklet notes and synopsis here are in Italian and English only.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
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