Musical history is littered with the corpses of composers who went out of fashion, and one of opera’s prime examples is Massenet. A conservative composing in the French grand opera tradition of Meyerbeer and Gounod, his later works must have seemed pretty staid compared to contemporary shockers like Salome, Elektra and the rise of Schoenberg. No wonder then that, despite box office success in his day, he all but disappeared from the stage after his death save for stagings of his two biggest hitters, Manon and Werther.
Recent years have seen a revival in his fortunes, however. A reassessment of his output shows a musical eclectic whose work ranged from epic historical blockbusters like Le Cid and Esclarmonde to domestic dramas like Thérèse and thoughtful comedies like Don Quichotte and his witty Cendrillon. Thaïs is in some ways typical of his ‘forgotten’ works. Tuneful, richly scored, it’s a very pleasant listen, and its story holds the attention, but it could be argued it lacks the crucial ingredients for lasting operatic success, namely a conventional romantic storyline.
Nevertheless, thanks to champions like Beverly Sills, Leontyne Price and Renée Fleming, it has made a comeback of sorts, and Opera Australia’s concert performances give it every opportunity to charm without, it must be said, the box office risk associated with a demand for lavish sets and the chance that a little known tale of a courtesan and an ascetic monk might struggle to find sufficient audiences. No fear of that here. Sydney Town Hall was packed with aficionados drawn in by the chance to hear Australian star soprano Nicole Car singing opposite her husband, the equally impressive French-Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis. Neither disappointed, and high musical standards across the board entirely justified the rapturous reception.
The story is simple. As a young man, Athanaël was brought up in Alexandria, a city notorious for the pleasures of the flesh. Rejecting the temptations of his youth to become a Cenobite, he joined the Desert Fathers before deciding to conquer his past by returning to the city and converting its greatest sinner, the courtesan (and, in a nod to 19th-century social prejudice, actress) Thaïs. Against all expectations, he succeeds and she follows him into the desert where she enters a convent before dying a saint. As she expires, the bereft Athanaël, who had always seemed a little too interested in her charms, admits that he has always loved her and collapses in despair. Not your standard Romeo and Juliet, then…
Etienne Dupuis is a real talent and a rising star abroad. As Athanaël, his firm, virile baritone packs a mighty punch, yet he’s flexible and can exhibit great delicacy, eclipsing many of the older singers one hears in the role on recordings. Singing in his native French, he makes much of the language, and seizes on the lyricism in Massenet’s writing to deliver some beautifully spun arias and dramatic musical dialogues. Powerful at the top – and it’s an awkwardly high-lying role at times – his voice easily carries to the back of the Town Hall and he is even authoritative singing while turning his back and walking offstage. Even better, he captures the essence of what can seen a deeply unattractive man, by imbuing the role with just the right degree of arrogance and a hint of underlying sensuality, not to mention that creepy catholic obsession with sex. His overtly radiant aria after his first vision of Thaïs – he has several – immediately shows he’s in deep and way too ardent to be just a sexual killjoy.
Nicole Car has form in the role – Thaïs’ aria, Dis-moi que je suis belle, where the glamorous courtesan worries Marschallin-like about getting old, is a centrepiece of her brilliant debut disc. She proves equally charismatic essaying the complete role, her voice even across the full range giving her attention to text’s full play. Entering to a veritable musical orgy of sound – Massenet can whip up a toe-tapper when he wants to – she immediately commands attention, and proceeds to chart the character’s tricky journey from high-class hooker to simple saint with great skill. Car understands that by her devotion to love, Thaïs is already halfway there. She might appear to enjoy her day-job a little too much, but for her, God is love, which with his focus on pain and penitence, Athanaël – and too many Christians today – never quite seem to remember. It’s a taxing sing, ranging high, but sitting around the middle of the singer’s upper range, calling for a lyric soprano with a decent extension, and Car never struggles. Capturing the character’s fragility and intelligence, the complex confrontations with Athanaël are the highlights they should be, only topped by their luminous Act IV duet.
Thaïs is very much a two character piece, but the small supporting cast all do well. Simon Kim has fun as the hedonistic Nicias – Thaïs’ current ‘employer’ – enjoying the sometimes high-lying challenges of the role. Even more impressive is Richard Anderson as a sonorous Palémon, the po-faced leader of the Desert Fathers. Sporting an enormous beard, he looks every inch the orthodox monk, and his rich bass voice is deliciously deployed. His abandonment of the wretched Athanaël, “May God come to you aid, farewell” seems typical of this insular Christian community. Sian Pendry projects warmly as Albine, the Mother Superior who takes Thaïs into her convent at the end, while Anna-Louise Cole and Anna Yun have a ball as a couple of party-girls whose lines mostly seemed to consist of “ha ha ha ha”.
Released from the confines (physical and acoustic) of the pit, the Opera Australia Orchestra and Chorus are on blazing form under Guillaume Tourniaire, a specialist in 19th-century French music whose Pearlfishers last year was a total revelation. Massenet veers from the Wagnerian whenever things turn gloomy – usually whenever there’s a monk in sight – to frothy faux exotic whenever a good-time girl is having a good time. Tourniaire proves adept at both, bringing out the depths in the score’s darker corners while tempting us with the epicurean sweetmeats of Act II. Special mention too for Concertmaster Jun Yi Ma whose performance of the famous Méditation brings the house down. Supple, sweet, and magnificently phrased, he fully deserves his place at the curtain call. Thaïs isn’t much of a chorus show – some semi-passive monks and a few amorphous revellers – but the OA Chorus give it their considerable all, some particularly fine basses cutting through in the opening scene.
Of course, these concert performances are an expediency while the Joan Sutherland Theatre undergoes renovation, but Thaïs proves a genuine silver lining. The chance to hear two world-class singers – and yes, there is that special bond – delivering in spades in a relative operatic rarity is not to be missed. I know it’s a well-worn cliché, but if there are any tickets left for Monday’s repeat performance, you should seriously consider killing for them.
Thaïs is repeated on Monday July 24.