It appears to be sheer coincidence that this decadent French late 19th-century operatic rarity was programmed this year into Opera Australia’s season for a recent concert performance in the Sydney Town Hall during its absence from the Sydney Opera House and again in concert performance as the Mid-Season Gala for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, both with entirely separate casts.
The simple story of this exotic bijou is well related here, in essence a tale of two protagonists who begin on two diametrically opposed paths, one of religious redemption and the other towards unfettered hedonism but who end up exchanging their destinies. The opera’s first performance took place at the Paris Opéra in 1894 at the peak of Massenet’s fame. The work was written for the extraordinary Sibyl Sanderson, a Californian soprano who allegedly had a range of low G to three octaves above. The work was well received, particularly for its show-stopping Méditation for solo violin that returns in the final Act as part of a vocal duet. Its non-rhyming prose libretto by Louis Gallet is based on Anatole France’s novel Thaïs (1890). The work is a precursor to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and throughout this performance I couldn’t help but notice striking similarities to Oscar Wilde’s French play used as the basis for Richard Strauss’s Salome (1903–05) though Wilde and Strauss treat the seemingly absurd confrontation between pious Christian and voluptuary with different intent.
The exotic Oriental setting is 4th-century Egypt with an ascetic monastic desert community, a nunnery, and at the centre the lust-ridden beautiful and wealthy city of Alexandria, birthplace of the Cénobite monk Athanaël. In concert performance much was left for our imaginations to fill in the gaps, which was probably beneficial given the lavishness of some prescribed settings. Take for example Thaïs’s abode in the libretto described thus: “Daylight can only reach this secluded place through thin veils of water which make it soft and iridescent. To the front of the stage, a statue of Venus on a stele, with an incense burner in front of it. The ground is littered with rich Byzantine carpets, embroidered cushions and Libyan lion skins. Luxuriant flowers tumble out of great onyx vases…” etc. But a pity to miss the coup de théatre of Thaïs sultrily scattering grains of incense into the burner with a golden spatula before she sings amidst its ascending smoke her gracious ode to Venus. It is not surprising that Massenet’s operas faded into insignificance if not irrelevance at the turn of the 20th century with the arrival of Modernism. It is interesting to see that Opera Australia has included the composer’s comédie-héroïque Don Quichotte (1910) in the 2018 Season directed by French Romantic specialist Guillaume Tourniaire.
The MSO again appeared in top form under its chief conductor Andrew Davis who is always able to summon a smooth-as-silk, warmly blended sound from the string section, a fine balance with well-tuned winds and brass. Under his direction the orchestra sounds as a finely tuned, responsive choir of voices. Davis performed this work for the Edinburgh Festival in 2011 and two members of this cast came from that production: Erin Wall in the title role and Quinn Kelsey as Athanaël. Kelsey’s Athanaël barely leaves the stage throughout the opera with a demandingly high tessitura set. His opening Hélas! Enfant encore was particularly effective as he remembers with regret his first sight of Thaïs following which he rejected the world in his need to find salvation within the spiritual peace of the desert. His voice warmed beautifully when, towards the end of the work he melts with pity for Thaïs in Ah! Des gouttes de sang coulet de ses pieds blancs. His aria in Act 1 Scene 2, where he is torn by his love of his birthplace Alexandria Voilà donc la terrible cité! (“the bright air wherein I breathed the hideous fragrance of lust!/Here is the voluptuous sea where I listened to the chants of golden-eyed sirens!” etc.) enchanted for its fresh expressivity as the appealing accompanying music begins to suggest a conflicted character.
Erin Wall managed the unique extremes of range in her role very nearly to perfection and was also an affecting actor in her transition from sybarite to ascetic nun with a tinge of madness in between. We bathed in her glorious voice from her opening aria C’est Thaïs, l’idole fragile. Her seductive Qui te fait si sévère that toys with Athanaël’s seriousness by way of flirtatious flute and violin runs had its full effect. Her fear of growing old and losing her beauty in Act 2 Ah! Je suis seule, seule enfin! was moving as was her L’amour est une vertu rare when with tender innocence she begs to keep a small stature of Eros as her only possession. Finally her deathbed scene where she is deaf to Athanaël’s amorous enticements and ends by singing Ah! Le ciel! Je vois Dieu! was quaintly touching.
Daniel Sumegi was an excellent Palémon, always forewarning and stern, his bass was rock-solid and expansive. Liane Keegan’s rich contralto and uncompromising presence as the austere Abbess Albine was a highlight of the final act. Diego Silva’s Nicias was polished and faultlessly sung though occasionally somewhat underpowered. I expected a more unhinged character in Suivez-moi tous, amis! after he has won back all his money and calls for yet more entertainment. Jacqueline Porter and Fiona Campbell, though, as servant party girls delighted particularly during the awkward makeover of Athanaël into rich regalia with perfume, robes and jewellery and their trio with a slightly unsteady coloratura Eva Kong in Celle qui vient est plus belle.
The musical hit of the opera, the famous Méditation during which Thaïs decides to end her decadent ways and seek to find God, was quite splendid. Through strumming harps, humming chorus and a sheen of gentle strings Eoin Andersen played his theme with tender sincerity. This was the first time I had heard this very well-known music as originally intended by the composer with background wordless chorus and the effect was magical. The music returns at the end of the opera for the final tragic duet between Athanaël and now transfigured Thaïs.
Though there is not a lot for a chorus to contribute, the MSO Chorus performed well throughout, though I hope there might be time for further French coaching before we return to Egypt next year in Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ.