By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note this can be streamed from www.metopera.org
Sunday, June 7
Massenet’s Thaïs ~ 2 Hrs. & 18 Mins
Conducted by Jesús López-Cobos, starring Renée Fleming, Michael Schade, and Thomas Hampson. Transmitted live on December 20, 2008.
Here we have the most operatic of scenarios: the devotion of an ascetic monk who has dedicated his life to God is tested against the allure of the world’s most voluptuous and seductive courtesan. In this beautiful, although rarely performed work, Massenet builds the melodrama (based on the novel, Thaïs by Anatole France) into an unusually moving climax, clothing the story in music as beautiful as the title character herself—portrayed by Renée Fleming in this 2008 Live in HD performance.
Sexy sparks fly and when the clash between the Spirit and the flesh takes place in an exotic foreign land – Egypt in the 4th century during the Roman Empire – you can expect a feast for your eyes as well as your ears. Renée Fleming’s elegant gowns were designed by Christian Lacroix. Thomas Hampson is the tortured priest, Athanaël, and Michael Schade is Nicias, a rich Alexandrian who sells a vineyard, a mill and some of his lands to obtain Thaïs’s ‘services’ for just one week. The production by John Cox, is suitably sumptuous – and campy – and violinist David Chan, a Met orchestra concertmaster, takes a solo bow onstage during the curtain calls for his beautifully refined playing of the opera’s most famous piece – the “Méditation.”
At a Cenobite settlement (a monastic tradition that stresses community life – where the life of the cenobitic monk is regulated by strict religious rule), Athanaël returns from Alexandria with news that the city is filled with sin. The people are besotted by Thaïs, a courtesan and actress, whose performances are causing a sensation. Athanaël confesses to his fellow monk, Palémon, that once in his youth, he had fallen under her spell, but now he considers her behavior an affront to God and is determined (so he says) to save her soul and to convert her to the religious life. Ah men…. they are either ridiculously naïve – or hopelessly self-deluded.
He returns to Alexandria, “Voilá donc la terrible cité” (enumerating its faults and temptations and asking God to purify the city). He is invited to the house of his old school friend Nicias, who is now a wealthy businessman and Thaïs’s current patron. Nicias laughs at Athanaël’s plan to convert Thaïs. Nicias warns Athanaël that the revenge of Venus can be terrible.
That evening at the feast (it is the farewell party to end Thaïs’s week with Nicias), Athanaël tells Thaïs that he has come to teach her “contempt for the flesh and love of pain.” Not surprisingly, she is not at all tempted by this proposition, “Qui te fiat si sévère” (she asks him why he is so unhappy – after all, hasn’t he felt the desire to be loved and kissed). She offends his sense of propriety with a seductive song, and he leaves, angrily promising to come back later, while she taunts and publicly shames him with her parting shot: “Dare to come, you who defy Venus!” and begins to disrobe as the curtain falls.
After the feast, Thaïs reflects on her life and on the fact that her beauty will eventually fade, “Dis-moi que je suis belle” (she asks her mirror to tell her that she is still beautiful and that she will be beautiful until the day she dies). Athanaël arrives unannounced and her usual seductions do not work on him. He claims to offer her an eternity of love, and she finally asks him to teach her about his ways of love. When she makes up her mind to follow him, he demands of her that she burn her house and all that is in it. She asks only to be able to keep a small statue of Eros, “L’amour est une vertu rare” (saying that love is precious and that it should be revered). A crowd appears at her door to try to tempt her out for the night, but their hope vanishes when she and Athanaël appear at the threshold of the burning house and escape in the confusion.
Thaïs and Athanaël are journeying on foot in the desert, on their way to the convent where Thaïs will stay. Her feet are bleeding and he is mercilessly driving her onward, “O messager de Dieu” (although she is exhausted, she praises him as a messenger from God who revives her soul even as the desert has sapped her strength). We begin to ask ourselves, which of them is really the devout one. At last, placing her in the care of Mother Superior Albine, Athanaël finally realizes to his dismay that he has accomplished his mission but that he will never see her again.
Returning to the Cenobites, and despite three months of praying, fasting and penance, he is unable to stop his erotic dreams of Thaïs. He attempts to confess to Palémon who quickly realizes that Athanaël is lost. “Tu sais, Ô Palémon” (Athanaël tells Palémon, the old monk, that he has brought Thaïs back to God from sin, but since he left her, he has felt no peace himself – she fills his dreams and he feels that she is as beautiful as Helen of Troy and Venus the goddess of Love). In yet another erotic dream, Athanaël hears voices telling him that Thaïs is dying, and he resolves to go back to the convent and steal her from God.
Thaïs has also spent the three months fasting and doing penance and the nuns have declared that her virtue and piety have already made her a saint. She is on her deathbed and Athanaël is too late to save her but confesses to her that all he taught her was a lie – “nothing is true but life and the love of human beings.” He tells her unhearing ears that he loves her. It’s best to try to ignore the rather melodramatic staging of this final scene. Usually it is set around Thaïs’s very ascetic deathbed at the convent where she is blissfully unaware of anything else and describes angels welcoming her to heaven. Instead, here we see her already arrayed as a saint, sitting atop an altar looking beatific, as Athanaël collapses in anguish. After all – this entire opera is at its core a soprano’s vehicle, and they have allowed Renée to play it to the hilt!
1. Renée Fleming in the title role of Massenet’s “Thaïs” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.
2. Thomas Hampson as Athanaël and Renée Fleming in the title role of Massenet’s “Thaïs” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
3. Thomas Hampson as Athanaël and Renée Fleming in “Thaïs,” in the Metropolitan Opera production of Jules Massenet’s work. Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times.
4. Renée Fleming as Thaïs and Thomas Hampson as Athanaël, at a desert oasis near the convent of Albine in Massenet’s “Thaïs” at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera.