Hot Saint, Holy Sinner – Massenet’s Thaïs at the Met

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REVIEW: of the Metropolitan Opera presentation of Thaïs by Jules Massenet and Louis Gallet (viewed November 22, 2017).

A colorful operatic mélange of piety and exotica, Jules Massenet’s 1894 Thaïs reemerged this season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in a remounting of a glittery production originated as long ago as 2002 at Lyric Opera of Chicago. At that time, the work was promoted as a showcase for soprano Renée Fleming in the title role (a role that had afforded like ostent earlier for sopranos Beverly Sills and Leontyne Pryce in the 1970s).

Ailyn Pérez in the title role of Massenet’s “Thaïs.” Photo: Chris Lee/Metropolitan Opera

This time, the courtesan-turned-saint at the center of the opera is incarnate in rising star soprano Ailyn Pérez, the winner of multiple important and prestigious honors in recent years (including Pérez’s signal distinction as the first Hispanic recipient of the Richard Tucker Award in 2012).

A companion at the November 22 performance groused that the opera’s initial predicate – that a pagan priestess might require a Christian man to set her right – smacked of “patriarchy.” Well, Pérez reaches deep below the jeweled carapace of Massenet’s deceptively complex musical contrivance to render up a fully persuasive saga of independent self-transcendence for this Sadie Thompson of the Nile delta.

Pérez is magnificent.

Heaven Couldn’t Wait

Based obliquely on an early Christian legend, the story concerns a 4th-Century Egyptian courtesan and priestess of Venus converted from paganism by an ardent monk and dying as a chaste and holy member of an order of nuns. Saint Thaïs of Egypt is still celebrated in the Catholic calendar.

The tale, however, actually came to Massenet by way of a cynical, sensationalized and anticlerical take on it by contemporary novelist Anatole France. While Massenet appears to have jibed with the layered eroticism and psychological ferment of France’s highly embellished novelization, he abjured its pro-atheist snark, instead playing it straight – which not only effectively deflected the saga back to its reverent origins, but managed to beguile its would-be saboteur in the bargain. A Met program note quotes France himself as cooing to the composer: “You have lifted my poor Thaïs to the first rank of operatic heroines.”

A Good Man is Hard to Find

Actually, the character of Thaïs herself was not the prime locus of France’s subversion, but that of the monk Paphnuce who instigates her defection from hedonism. The novel makes him out a closet lech and hollow Pharisee whose solicitude for Thaïs’s soul masks base lust for controlling her body, while Thaïs is a mere victim of pious Christian fraud.

Gerald Finley as Athanaël in Massenet’s “Thaïs.” Photo: Chris Lee/Metropolitan Opera

But in Massenet’s opera (with its prose libretto by Louis Gallet), the role of the monk, renamed Athanaël, is much more nuanced and sympathetically handled. Having renounced his young life of pleasure in Egyptian Alexandria (part of the still largely pagan Roman Empire), we first encounter him as a valued member of an ascetic Cenobite Christian community in the Thebaid desert. However, against the counsel of his superior, Palémon, he is obsessed with the notion of returning to Alexandria to attempt the spiritual conversion of a beautiful and notoriously wanton courtesan he had observed from afar in his salad days.

From the onset, Athanaël’s motives are ambiguous, even to himself. This is nicely underscored in the Met production staging, and represents a key to activating the full, subtle power latent in Massenet’s opera, the extrinsic glamor and sumptuous sounds of which can threaten to make surface more interesting than psychology. But, while there are gaudy belle-époque delights aplenty in Thaïs, the abiding intrigue is in the slow but inexorable turns of soul in each of the two principal protagonists – Thaïs toward God; Athanaël toward carnality and despair.

Hymns at Heaven’s Gate

In interviews, Ailyn Pérez has discussed what she calls the “fragile” and “transparent” quality of much of the vocal music in Thaïs. In viewing a performance, it becomes evident how important such insight is to rendering the opera luminous rather than merely pretty. Massenet does not ravish with the kind of depth and deluge of sound that Wagner, for instance, might have brought to this story (and it’s one the latter might have seized on brilliantly); nor does Massenet manifest anything approaching the piquancy and ferocity of Strauss’ later Salome (though the two stories are, in their essential schema of holy-man-meets-scarlet-woman, sort of mirror inversions of each other). Massenet’s level of musical profundity is not uniform (n.b., the pallid and overlong solemnity of the opening monks’ tableau; the banal carnival music that precedes Thaïs’s first entrance in Scene 2; the conventional “traveling music” motif that bridges the final two scenes).

Ailyn Pérez in the title role and Gerald Finley as Athanaël in Massenet’s “Thaïs.” Photo: Chris Lee/Metropolitan Opera

But amidst obligatory and yeomanlike connective material are those fragile and transparently profound musical passages that make Thaïs both a heartfelt hymn and a truly humane revelation. While the chemistry between the monk and the courtesan heats up, we glimpse Thaïs’s private anguish over a life of mere meretricious pleasure, and her own longing for a purchase on eternity (“Dis-moi que je suis belle“). After succumbing to Athanaël’s persuasions and committing to Christianity, Thaïs renders a uniquely poignant ode to Eros, pleading for leniency toward a god who, while a false idol, is also an intimate adumbration of human goodness (“L’amour est une vertu rare“). The suffering of the two pilgrims as they cross the desert to the cloister that will be Thaïs’s new home is a passion play of raw and throbbing tenderness (“O messager de Dieu“), and feels as though it may well have been a half-conscious inspiration for Puccini’s later audacity in setting the climax of his Manon Lescaut in the “desert of Louisiana” (a fitting irony, as Puccini was fully conscious of attempting to outstrip Massenet’s own earlier Manon).

Ailyn Pérez in the title role and Gerald Finley as Athanaël in Massenet’s “Thaïs.” Photo: Chris Lee/Metropolitan Opera

There’s the unparalleled, poignant irony of the opera’s final duet – a dying woman’s gratitude to the man who has brought her salvation, against the anguish of a man losing both his own soul and his only chance of earthly love.

And, of course, there is the famous “Meditation” – that solo violin theme of soaring lyricism, both spiritual and passionate, that forms an unacted, unstaged interlude between the opera’s third and fourth tableaux and conveys more than any scripted scene could the miracle of internal revelation and newborn metaphysical conviction. Does Massenet subsequently overuse the theme with variations woven in and out of the opera’s ensuing sequences? Perhaps. But only the most crabbed would dare think so while in the grips of the lived musical experience.

Delta Force

The performances in this Met Thaïs are all admirable. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger as the chief monk, Palémon, is sonorous, somber, and appropriately austere. His Act III forsaking of Athanaël is chilling – the trusted spiritual advisor shrugs a languid “I told you so,” turns his back, and trudges away across the sand. One can barely imagine a more desolating rebuke.

Tenor Jean-François Borras is a bright-voiced and nicely animated Nicias, Athanaël’s boyhood friend turned Alexandrian bon vivant who is Thaïs’s lover of the moment in the opera’s early scenes.

Contralto Sara Couden gives a warm and winning turn as the Abbess Albine who welcomes Thaïs to the cloister and later prepares her for eternity.

Among the more ephemeral but sumptuous delights of the opera is the “terzet” divertissement sung by a deliciously adventitious character, termed “La Charmeuse” (sung here by coloratura soprano Deanna Breiwick) backed up by the handmaidens Crobyle and Myrtale (soprano France Bellemare and mezzo-soprano Megan Marino, respectively). Breiwick’s sinuous and exotic vocalise is mesmerizing, and made all the more indelibly memorable in this production as it becomes the veritable aural veil that snakes around a sinfully sensual, interpolated bellydance by Syrena Nikole.

The role of the monk Athanaël in this Met production is ordinarily performed by Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who was unfortunately out ill on the evening of November 22. But in his stead, a solid, rich-toned acquittal was made by bass-baritone Bradley Garvin.

Finally, as earlier adverted, soprano Ailyn Pérez creates a richly psychologized, intelligent, vulnerable and full-blooded being of the opera’s complex heroine. From her first entrance, in a shimmering gold gown by Christian Lacroix (who designed all the title character’s costumes) and beneath a tumult of blond curls that might suggest Dolly Parton playing Cleopatra, Pérez nonetheless evades any whisper of kitsch or temptation to superficial diva-dom – a hazard into which many a lesser Thaïs might fall. Through the conviction of her performance, and the sheer thrill of her warm, flexible, emotionally lambent voice, Pérez makes this Thaïs a triumph of spirit over cynicism.

Thaïs was directed by John Cox and is conducted by maestro Emmanuel Villaume. The lustrous solo violin work is by Met concertmaster David Chan.

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The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Jules Massenet’s Thaïs runs through December 2, 2017. Information and tickets are available at http://www.metopera.org/

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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