Thaïs, Massenet

Metropolitan Opera

30th December, 2008

It was not a remarkably memorable night at the opera, despite solidly beautiful singing and playing, extravagant gowns, and colorful, stylized sets, at the best opera company (debatably) in the world. Seated in Consumption Circle (a.k.a. Family Circle, the highest tier, where apparently everyone with tuberculosis sits), I admired it all (through the storm of coughing), but was never really moved. And this is why I go to the opera – to be taken out of the truth of my everyday life, to be transported to another dimension where I yearn to find, honestly, some truth of life reflected back on stage. If I am relegated to observer the whole evening, and never drawn out of my seat and head, then I consider it somewhat of a failure of an evening.

That is NOT to say, a failure of an opera or of the performers – the miracle and mystery of live theater is the three-way conversation between composer, performer and audience member… and each audience member experiences it in his own different world, creating thousands of performances each night of an opera. It is entirely possible that a person two tiers down (even the bejeweled, Botoxed woman with bronchitis) was transported, that her life will never be the same because of that evening. I'd like to be clear about that, so that what follows can be taken as simply one person's experience out of thousands.

Thais, Fleming
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Probably the closest I came the whole evening to being spirited away was during David Chan's evocative violin solo. The famous "Meditation" from Thaïs is deservedly so – in it we hear Thaïs' sensuous philosophy evolve from flippant to reflective, and Chan's crystalline tone and otherworldly musical shape wound us through her inner journey, supported by the haunting vocalises of the Met Opera Chorus and Orchestra, led by the sensitive and stylish Jesús López-Cobos.

Renée Fleming poured out her signature golden tone all evening, and looked ravishing in her custom Christian Lacroix gowns, every inch (fewer inches these days, it might be noted) the alluring courtesan. Her slightly blurry French is made up for by her tonal and visual opulence, but a little clarity could bring more poetry to her portrayal. The main problem is that Massenet's Thaïs makes such a rapid transformation from performer to penitent that we are left a little cold. There is no long character arc, as for Manon, in which we begin to feel her dissatisfaction and loneliness, so it feels abrupt.

Her quick conversion might be a little more understandable if the following scene is indicative of Thaïs' usual nights on the town. The set locates us outside Thaïs' house (she's inside with Athanaël, burning it down), where her former lover/keeper Nicias, the lyrical but out-fached tenor Michael Schade, has returned for Thaïs. This was truly one of the oddest scenes I have ever witnessed on the stage. An entertainment is arranged for the mob accompanying Nicias, including a belly-dancer, and three singing girls. Two of the girls, the powerful Alyson Cambridge and Ginger Costa-Jackson, sing a duet to accompany the dancer. A third (Leah Partridge) seems to pop out of the stage-left crowd, displaying virtuosic, unaccompanied coloratura vocalises between verses, seemingly unconnected to the rest of the song. Over the course of the song, the soprano inexplicably sidles closer and closer to the dancer, eventually practically entwining with her to the point that we expect them to kiss, which is awkward only because they don't. Maybe I'm missing some crucial brilliance of the staging, but to me, it only served to undermine the lovely Ms. Partridge; she had distracting tuning issues in most passages which may have been nonexistent had she not been relegated to left field for most of the song. Anyway, all that to say that it was a distracting segment with no real dramatic purpose, unless it was to persuade us that Thaïs had made the right decision to leave that life of luxury. I was convinced, in any case.

Finally, Thomas Hampson was brilliant in the demanding role of Athanaël, the monk who claims Thaïs for God. He is sounding better than ever these days, and the warmth of his tone and the clarity of his French carried him artfully through some thankless declamatory passages. As melodramatic as much of the opera seems, Massenet brilliantly allows Thaïs' sensuality to soften Athanaël's lines, evoking an honest connection and closeness between them that saves the opera from silliness. Hampson made the most of these moments, particularly in the final scene, imploring her in her own fluid language of beauty; however she has already left the earth, beatific in her sainthood and completely non-ascetic, heavenly gown (note: if I am ever a nun, I hope Lacroix designs MY habit).

It was an evening of showy spectacle and lovely singing, shot through with moments of brilliance, but it didn't really coalesce into a meaningful theatrical event for me. You can't have everything, I guess, and it was pretty darn good.


Whitney Scott