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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
ThaÔs (1898)
Nicole Chevalier, soprano (ThaÔs), Josef Wagner, baritone (AthanaŽl), Roberto Sacca, tenor (Nicias), Carolina Lippo, soprano (Crobyle), Sofia Vinnik, mezzo-soprano (Myrtale, Albine), GŁnes GŁrle, bass (Palťmon)
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Vienna/Leo Hussain
Stage director: Peter Konwitschny
rec. live, Theater an der Wien, 2021
sung in French with subtitles in French, German, English, Japanese, Korean
HD 16:9, PCM Stereo & DTS-MA 5.1; All Regions
UNITEL 805004 Blu-ray [111 mins]

I suppose it is far too late now to lament the fact that the ubiquitous solo violin meditation from Massenet’s ThaÔs has so far entered public consciousness, as a beautiful piece of purely salon music, that it has almost completely overshadowed the actual nature of the opera which the composer and his librettist derived from a somewhat scandalous novel by Anatole France. Far from being the sort of sentimental hagiography of a saintly convert that seems to have become firmly lodged in the mind of most opera-goers, the main trajectory of the drama instead focuses on the emotional progress of a fifth century Alexandrian monk, AthanaŽl. In his youth he and his fellow-scholar Nicias both admired the young and fashionable courtesan ThaÔs; AthanaŽl has withdrawn to a monastery in the desert, but Nicias is now in the closing stages of an amicable separation from the woman on whom as his mistress he has spent a great deal of his wealth. AthanaŽl now seeks to convert ThaÔs to Christianity and, since she is already feeling the onset of middle age, she consents with surprising alacrity (the actual moment of her conversion occurs offstage during the first appearance of the meditation, accompanied by an offstage humming chorus). Although he has shown signs of occasional jealousy (ordering her to destroy a statuette of Eros given to her by Nicias), it is not until the opening scene of the final Act, when AthanaŽl delivers the penitent to the care of the abbess Albine, that the monk suddenly realises (to the return of the meditation music) that his love for ThaÔs has been far from the purely spiritual one which he has always assumed. He returns to his monastery (where his brethren treat his situation with indifference and lack of understanding) and then, after a furious night ride through a desert storm, comes to the bed of the dying ThaÔs in a desperate attempt to undo her conversion, renouncing his own belief in Heaven and attempting to persuade her that God does not exist, only to realise that he has now lost her more completely than ever.

Now this is not at all the sort of psychological drama that would have meant anything at all to its fictional protagonists in the fifth century, but it rings all too true to modern sensibilities; and one can easily understand why producer Peter Konwitschny, anxious to shed the unwanted sentimental baggage that ThaÔs brings with her, has updated and relocated the action from Alexandria to Hollywood in the early twentieth century. But almost immediately in this performance alarm bells began to ring. The opening scene, set in the desert monastery, has a promising skyline with wheeling (although strangely motionless) birds hovering over a hemispherical structure which serves both as dormitory and pulpit. The characters all appear in the guise of dark angels, with black wings – not perhaps the happiest of images for holy anchorites, but perhaps indicative of the way in which they see themselves. When the sleeping AthanaŽl sees his vision of ThaÔs dancing in Alexandria, the monks enter into the role of her enraptured audience calling her name, which seems psychologically wrong; and then, in one of Massenet’s trademark ‘distancing’ scenes where he asks AthanaŽl and the monks to slowly process into the distance, the chorus here stays resolutely put and allows AthanaŽl alone to walk away, lifting up the back curtain (and its painted desert birds) in order to do so. This simply looks cheap.

And unfortunately from that point onwards things begin steadily to go further downhill. Konwitschny indeed seems reluctant to allow Massenet any of his atmospheric effects of distant voices, since when Nicias’s serving girls come to greet AthanaŽl on his arrival in Alexandria they are already buzzing around him from the start, and their blurred offstage coloratura simply sounds fussy when heard in close-up. Nicias is characterised as a tired and decidedly raddled philosopher (much older than his supposed fellow-student); and when ThaÔs finally enters she behaves with complete contempt for him, flirting outrageously with his friends and provoking jealous fights among the guests (which utterly contradicts the quiet contemplative music that Massenet has written for her at this point). AthanaŽl too behaves in a boorish fashion which would surely have got him thrown out of even the most disorderly house-party in post-Prohibition 1930s Hollywood; and the whole is rendered even more ludicrous by the fact that all the guests at the party are also wearing angels’ wings, this time in white and ever more lurid colours, leaving it an open question as to just whom they think they are. After that the opening of the Second Act is comparatively conventional, apart from the fact that Nicias’s statuette of Eros is converted by Konwitschny into a slave boy with a punk haircut whom ThaÔs quixotically treats as the mirror in which she ruefully observes her fading beauty. But then the luxury of ThaÔs’s mansion throughout seems tawdry and cheap (as well as under-furnished), a far remove from the world of the grand society hostess whose favours, we are assured, come close to bankrupting her admirers – although even then Nicias still seems to have retained plenty of gold (or dollar bills) to fling to the mob at the end of Act Two. It is her loss of interest in simple hedonism, after all, which underlies her desire to seek solace in more spiritual pursuits.

But then it is after the meditation, and the heroine’s ‘conversion’, that the whole production here starts to go really badly wrong. The ballet, with its sparkling exotic coloration, is cut in its entirety; but that is just the least of the wholesale butchery which is inflicted on the score from this point forward. The booklet note refers to the edition of the music employed as that of 1898 “in a slightly condensed form”; but in fact that 1898 revision expanded these scenes, and the savagery with which the knife is wielded here goes well beyond anything that Massenet might ever have contemplated (the score contains only two provisions for any abridgement). The psychotic disturbance of AthanaŽl is well in evidence before he even leads his suppliant from Alexandria (he shoots Nicias’s slave boy with apparent equanimity and total unconcern), and in Act Three (set not in the desert locations specified, but apparently on the ruins of ThaÔs’s mansion) his behaviour becomes ever more extreme. Massenet took great care to depict his mental deterioration very carefully; although the monk’s behaviour is subtly disturbing (he gloats over his penitent’s bleeding feet), it is not until she has been accepted into her retreat by the abbess Albine and he realises that he will never see her again, that he suddenly realises the depth and nature of his love – and it is at that moment the long-reserved recapitulation of the meditation finally appears. All of that goes for nothing here, and even the appearance of Albine and her novices is excised in its entirety, which gives no reason either for AthanaŽl’s sudden realisation of the nature of his feelings or the musical representation of them. Some time before this the angels’ wings have disappeared, for reasons that are as inexplicable as their presence in the first place.

After this the musical carnage becomes irreparable. The whole scene of AthanaŽl’s return to his unsympathetic brethren is removed, with the exception of his second sleeping vision of ThaÔs where he once again sees her mocking him in Alexandria. But this is meaningless in this context – the two of them are both together, and fully conscious, onstage – and so the producer, presumably with the collaboration of an over-tame conductor, now lays violent hands on Massenet’s actual music. The chanting of the offstage nuns is taken over by ThaÔs herself (yet another of the composer’s distancing effects sacrificed) and the heroine’s stratospheric solo lines rising to a chain of nine high E flats are assigned in their turn to the sopranos of the chorus. I cannot imagine any self-respecting operatic in-house chorus accepting or tolerating this for a second; the patent suffering of the sopranos of the Arnold Schoenberg choir makes me quite certain I never ever want to hear sounds like this again, and the result is grotesque in the extreme. After this the fact that the whole of the music to describe AthanaŽl’s desert ride, the following abridged recapitulation of the mediation, and the beautifully delicate music for the nuns over the bed of the dying ThaÔs, are all wantonly removed from the score, ceases to have any impact (although I calculate that some thirty out of forty pages of the allegedly “slightly condensed” vocal score are missing here). AthanaŽl’s final scene with ThaÔs, which should be psychologically devastating, is simply matter-of-fact – there is nowhere left to go – and when ThaÔs sinks into the ground at the end (while she sings of ascending to heaven), one is simply left with a feeling of relief that the travesty is finally at an end.

ThaÔs has never been a lucky opera on disc – some ten years ago I reviewed the then-available various audio alternatives – and the casting here is comprehensively undermined by the director’s cavalier approach to the characters. Josef Wagner is solidly dramatic as AthanaŽl (although his voice could ideally be sweeter) but he is no match for Gabriel Bacquier, Sherrill Milnes or Thomas Hampson in the various stereo sets. Roberto Sacca is lyrical, but sounds weary, as Nicias; and when he starts throwing dollar bills around at the end of Act Two he lacks the power to ride the orchestra. As I have noted, Nicole Chevalier ducks the high E flats that Massenet wrote for her in Act Three; but then her two top Ds in the following duet sound strained, and some of her lower notes are unexpectedly guttural. This is a part that Massenet wrote for the very peculiar talents of his American muse Sybil Sanderson, and the only singer in recent times to have risen to the challenge must be Renťe Fleming on her 2000 audio recording with Thomas Hampson. These same two singers have also appeared on video in the same roles, and although the Met 2010 production is rather flat and unimaginative it is nevertheless streets ahead of this one in both musical and dramatic terms. The sound on this new video is no better than that on the CDs of 2000, and the conducting of Leo Hussain does not seem to engender much warmth (although plenty of volume) from the orchestra. But then one can hardly muster any sort of commendation for a performance that so persistently mis-represents the composer’s intentions in dramatic, emotional, musical or (most vitally) psychological terms.

The booklet contains two pages of discussion in English, German and French. These include substantial extracts from two Viennese journals about the original production which seem to have been written by critics who were generally unfamiliar with Massenet’s opera. There is also a very brief synopsis which completely glosses over the omitted passages in Act Three. The track listings, and the cast list, credit Sofia Vinnik with singing the role of Albine; but absolutely none of her solo passages remain in the music as heard here. The subtitles are given in French, German, English, Japanese and Korean. Those in English are credited to Unitel GmbH, Halle, but any pretensions to copyright concealed in this circumlocution would surely be a breach of the Trades Descriptions Act; they are entirely a slightly updated of the translation by Hermann Klein included in the 1907 vocal score, complete with a ludicrous misprint reproduced verbatim from that published version where AthanaŽl addresses ThaÔs as “Father” (the word clearly should be “Thither”). Yet another example, I fear, of things being done ineptly, despite the ever-alert video direction of Tiziano Mancini.

The only Blu-ray competition, a 2009 production featuring an out-of-sorts Barbara Frittoli, features a glacially static performance but does at least give us the score complete. Those seeking a video production of this opera are recommended to the 2010 Decca Fleming/Hampson DVD version; those wanting to encounter Massenet’s work in its full glory will find that the original Fleming/Hampson CDs (also on Decca) are no longer available separately, but will find that Erin Wall and Sir Andrew Davis on their 2020 Chandos release (despite the omission of the ballet) give an infinitely superior reading to the misbegotten version of the score presented on this Blu-Ray.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Jim Westhead

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