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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
ThaÔs, an opera in three acts (1894, rev. 1898)
Libretto: Louis Gallet, based on Anatole France
Nicole Chevalier (soprano): ThaÔs
Josef Wagner (baritone): AthanaŽl
Roberto Saccŗ (tenor): Nicias
Carolina Lippo (soprano): Crobyle
Sofia Vinnik (mezzo-soprano): Myrtale, Albine
GŁnes GŁrle (bass-baritone): Palťmon
Samuel Wegleitner (boy soprano): Eros
Arnold Schoenberg Chor
ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien/Leo Hussain
Peter Konwitschny (stage direction)
Rec. live, April 2021, Theatre an der Wien, Vienna
UNITEL EDITION 805004 Blu-ray [111 mins]

Jules Massenet achieved astonishing success as an opera composer. He began his career in a garret and ended up as a multi-millionaire after having composed twenty-six operas. The performance statistics are quite dizzying. In Paris alone between 1867 and 1915 there were 2617 performances; Manon contributed 831 outings to this grand total. He composed five ballets, fourteen sets of incidental music, twenty-six orchestral works, many solo piano works, at least four chamber pieces, four oratorios and some 200 songs. Add assorted religious works, cantatas, choruses, vocal duos, trios and quartets, and you conclude that his work speed had to be phenomenal.

Most of Massenet’s operas have been recorded. When listening, one becomes aware that he was a musical chameleon who changed his compositional style to match the vogue. To hear Massenet-Wagner, listen to Esclarmonde!

ThaÔs is one of the operas that have survived to receive occasional modern performances. Its revised form comes from 1898. The opera, set in 4th-century Alexandria, tells the story of the eponymous courtesan. ThaÔs is converted to ascetic Christianity by the Cenobite monk AthanaŽl. He, in turn, is won over by her beauty and ends up wanting her to be his lover. Alas, by then she is dying. In true operatic tradition, he declares his love as she dies and goes to heaven. The work contains one of the most indelible melodies Massenet composed, the luxurious Mťditation; the booklet notes describe it as “schmaltzy”.

Let me put my cards on the table. I am not fond of modern operatic productions, where the setting may become so outrť that one spends more time trying to fathom aspects of the production’s sets or costumes than enjoying the music. This performance is a case in point. Even the booklet notes mention a peculiarity of the costumes, and invite the viewer to wonder why the producer indulged in them.

One is confronted by this oddity right in the opening scene. A group of Cenobite monks wear the sort of robes that one might expect in a traditional production, but they also sport large black wings. As the non-religious members of the cast appear, they have large white wings attached to the back of modern costumes. ThaÔs, the sole exception, has huge fluffy bright-red wings.

It later becomes evident (to my mind, at least) that the wings represent religious conviction: black for Christianity, white for devotion to the god Eros. Unfortunately, this interpretation does not work for ThaÔs. But then she and AthanaŽl lose their faith, as she abandons Eros for Christianity and he abandons ascetic Christianity for lust – and their wings are dropped.

The actual stage setting is minimal, in the modern style. The monk’s garden is simply a hemispherical mound, and ThaÔs’s room is a chaise longue and a shower stand. The colour effect of the production does not suffer from this minimalism. The costumes are mainly so extravagant that they provide all the colour needed.

There are two unexpected nice imaginative touches further on. Nicias throws handfuls of gold coins on the stage; those coins are banknotes, and later, looking like litter, they represent the desert sands in which ThaÔs dies. Another very effective innovation relates to a beautiful statue of Eros that she owns.

In a traditional staging, ThaÔs pleads with AthanaŽl to allow her to take the statue with her as they begin their journey across the desert to the convent in which she is to end her days. He refuses and smashes the statue. Things are very different here. A boy about 10 years old (dressed in a costume with small white wings attached, carrying a bow and quiver and sporting a bright-red Mohawk haircut) appears when ThaÔs is alone, and questions her future. This figure, clearly meant as Eros, frolics about the stage. AthanaŽl appears and persuades ThaÔs to abandon her lascivious ways and become a Christian. Eros realises that AthanaŽl is falling for ThaÔs, and tries to pull them together, firing one of his arrows at AthanaŽl. Eventually, AthanaŽl shoots Eros with a gun, but by then it is too late: his feelings for ThaÔs make him abandon his harsh stance against the wicked ways of the city.

This nice addition to the opera emphasizes the change in the two principals’ commitments to their respective gods, and particularly AthanaŽl’s mental struggle. The same is true for the action in a traditional staging, but there it is understated. Why a red Mohawk haircut is appropriate for Eros, I cannot imagine.

Let me turn to the libretto. I was immediately wary when I read in the booklet notes that the opera is presented in an abridged form which “focuses on the essential aspects of the story”. The first thing I noticed was the absence of the five-movement orchestral divertissement in the second tableau of the second act. These ten minutes are Massenet at his most charming. I struggled at times to decide just what had been rearranged at this very busy point in the score, because I could only use the French subtitles and the text in my copy of the Decca ThaÔs with Renee Fleming. No matter what has been done, however, the exotic party atmosphere is well presented, and the colourful female costumes are quite dazzling.

A much more serious excision occurs near the end of the opera. ThaÔs and AthanaŽl, crossing the desert on the way to Albine’s convent, are met by nuns and Albine herself. The final scene of ThaÔs’s death also features Albine. She tells AthanaŽl of the approaching death of, by now, Saint ThaÔs but she does not know of AthanaŽl’s transformation from ascetic monk to would-be lover. This small part is omitted in this production, save for Sofia Vinnik off-stage singing one of Albina’s lines.

The production makes so free with the original text that I really cannot see why it is necessary for ThaÔs to refer to Albine as “daughter of the Caesars”. After all, AthanaŽl uses a gun at one point. If you transpose an opera 1600 years into the future, then leaving such an anachronism seems rather careless.

So, we have a production compromised by editorial changes to the original text. The imagination of the stage director, Peter Konwitschny, has been used effectively to re-cast the time of the action, but some choices are baffling, to say the least. One wonders, for example, why there is a modern shower unit in ThaÔs’s boudoir, under which Eros dances whilst being showered in gold particles.

The viewing experience is effective and colourful due to the costumes. The singing is first-rate. Nicole Chevalier as ThaÔs exquisitely floats her high notes, and Josef Wagner as AthanaŽl is suitably masculine and alternately full of religious anger and then un-religious lust. Tenor Roberto Saccŗ sings the major part of Nicias. It is well done, although his initial entry is marred by a very wide vibrato. It becomes less marked as the work proceeds. The choral and orchestral work is excellent, and the live recording is fine.

If one did not know the opera, they would probably be as baffled as I was by the costume wings, but would be unaware of the edits, and would almost certainly enjoy the visual spectacle and the singing. Even so, it is not a performance for anyone who likes to see a very successful opera (137 performances in Paris between 1894 and 1915) staged in a manner faithful to the original.

Jim Westhead

Other personnel
Erwin Ortner (chorus master)
Johannes Leiacker (stage & costume design)
Guido Petzold (lighting)
Tiziano Mancini (video direction)

Filmed in High Definition, mastered from an HD source
Picture Format: 1080i 16:9 Blu-ray
Sound Formats: PCM Stereo | DTS-HD MA 5.1
Sung language: French (original language)
Subtitles: French, German, English, Japanese, Korean

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