Massenet is one composer who has definitely gained ground in recent years with reassessments of many of his more obscure operas, once condemned for simply possessing unconventional plots. Fine stagings and recordings on CD and DVD have given new life to works like Thérèse, Don Quichotte, Le Mage and Cendrillon, but it’s Thaïs that suddenly, it seems, we can’t get enough of.
Beverly Sills, Leontyne Price and Renée Fleming gave it the push it needed, and in recent years both Opera Australia and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra have presented it in concert performances. This new Chandos recording replicates the MSO performance as far as conductor (Sir Andrew Davis) and diva (Erin Wall) go, but the orchestra and chorus come from one of Davis’s “other” outfits, the Toronto Symphony.
The opera’s idiosyncratic plot concerns Athanaël, a young man raised in the libidinous city of Alexandria, who has chosen to become a chaste Cenobite monk. A restless spirit, he decides it is his mission to return to the city of sin and convert its greatest malefactor, the courtesan Thaïs. Against all odds he succeeds, and Thaïs follows him into the desert where she enters a convent. Mortifying her flesh, she finally gives up the ghost and rises to heaven, while Athanaël, admitting at last that he had desired her with an impure love all along, collapses in despair.
Davis has championed this score for a decade now and it shows. As he did in Melbourne, he draws translucent playing from the TSO – try the delicate Méditation, here with offstage voices – all beautifully captured in sonic depth and detail by the Chandos engineers. He’s also adept at the magisterial, and his dramatic pacing is flawless.
Erin Wall in the title role is near ideal. Her long, half playful, half seductive opening aria “C’est Thaïs, l’idole fragile” is a lovely essay in multiple emotions, her flexible soprano creamy and warm. She’s also a fine vocal actor, capturing the character’s fragility in her ‘mirror, mirror on the wall’ aria, “Dis-moi que je suis belle.” Just occasionally the voice thins in the extreme upper register, and a couple of the very highest notes feel insecure, which is a pity as otherwise she brings so much to the role.
Joshua Hopkins’ Athanaël has stamina to spare and copes admirably with the demanding tessitura. His opening “Hélas! Enfant encore” leads naturally into the orchestral vision of Thaïs and then into a dark and anguished “Toi qui mis la pitié dans nos âmes”, the voice already tinged with a fanatical edge born of contradictory motives. His ambiguity-laden greeting to the city of sin “Voilà donc la terrible cite” is spectacular in its lyrical line and burnished timbral beauty.
Andrew Staples sounds suitably dissipated as Nicias, though a little more refulgence of tone wouldn’t have gone amiss. As the old Cenobite, Palémon, Nathan Berg is luxury casting and his resonant bass-baritone offers moments of sheer pleasure. Liv Redpath and Andrea Ludwig are lusciously matched as a pair of flighty goodtime girls who somehow manage to get the most charming music in the show.
With fine voices, most realistically balanced with the orchestra, this is a recording to cherish, despite the occasional vocal shortcoming.