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Opera on DVD: Massenet's Thaïs

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Jules Massenet, Thaïs, Eva Mei, Michele Pertusi, Marcello Viotti, Gran Teatro La Fenice (production by Pier Luigi Pizzi, 2004)
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Jules Massenet, Thaïs, Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson, Yves Abel, Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine (2000)
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Jules Massenet, Thaïs, Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Nicolai Gedda, Lorin Maazel, New Philharmonia Orchestra, John Alldis Choir (1976)
For their opera Thaïs (1894), Jules Massenet and his librettist, Louis Gallet, used Anatole France's novel of the same name (English translation by Robert B. Douglas) as their starting point. Like Esclarmonde, it was one of the operas that Massenet conceived specifically for the startling voice of the American soprano Sybil Sanderson. Its stark juxtaposition of the carnal and sacral was born in the same fin-de-siècle Parisian salon atmosphere as Oscar Wilde's French play Salome (1893), which gave Richard Strauss the naughty idea for his operatic adaptation of Hedwig Lachmann's German translation, which he saw in Berlin in 1903. Strauss premiered his scandalous opera Salome in 1905 in Dresden, with an American premiere at the Met in 1907. Massenet's opera is not as outwardly salacious as director Pier Luigi Pizzi makes it, but it absolutely works with the carnal part of the opera amped up to the max. This is what immediately brought Salome to my mind as I watched Pizzi's gorgeous and psychologically weighty production from the Gran Teatro La Fenice, which was released on DVD last year. If you have Netflix, you can watch their copy, which is what I did.

The story is the descendant of the sacre rappresentazioni of the 17th and 18th centuries, operas (or semistaged oratorios) on the lives of saints or allegorically represented spiritual topics (see my review of Cecilia Bartoli's recital for some examples). A fallen Christian woman named Thaisis or Thaisia, known as a public sinner (read prostitute) in Alexandria, Egpyt, in the fourth century, was converted to Christianity by St. Paphnutius. Repenting her sins, she became an incluse, meaning that she was enclosed in a cell in a convent, where she lived for three years, dying shortly after she was professed as a member of the community that took her in. Most hagiographers believe the story is almost certainly legend, and it makes good opera.

Musically, I would not say that this performance, recorded live in Venice in 2002 (before the grand reopening of the rebuilt La Fenice), is better than either of the most important complete recordings of this opera on CD. Massenet created quite a role in his baritone hero, Athanael, and Michele Pertusi does a fine job, acting well and singing capably. However, both Thomas Hampson and Sherrill Milnes have him beat vocally. The same is true for Eva Mei, but going up against Renée Fleming and Beverly Sills is rather tough competition, too. The sound is not always good, which is no surprise for a live stage recording, but this was definitely good work, led admirably by conductor Marcello Viotti and an all-around good cast.

Warning: Spoilers within!

What makes this DVD so interesting is that it is not only the sole version on DVD, to my knowledge, but a striking and intellectually challenging one, too. A lot of reviews of this production are quite negative: people have apparently been put off by the extratextual aspects of the staging, and prudish and pious Anglo-Saxons have been offended by the sparse costumes of some of the performers. However, Pizzi's staging emphasizes the sexual aspects of the story, the secret motivation behind Athanael's obsession with Thaïs. In the opening scene, the monastic community of the cenobites is gathered in an image like the Last Supper, with white-robed men at a table around their leader, Palémon. In fact, the libretto specifies that precise scene, calling for 12 cenobites and Palémon "assis autour d'une longue table rustique" (seated around a long rustic table). Behind them, however, Pizzi places a large cross-like T, which seemed to me to stand for Thaïs, hovering above.

Also on Ionarts:

Charles T. Downey, Summer Opera: Massenet's Cendrillon (June 16, 2005)

Charles T. Downey, Massenet's Esclarmonde with Washington Concert Opera (April 10, 2005)

Jens F. Laurson, Esclarmonde, Part 2 (April 12, 2005)

Charles T. Downey, The Phoenix (on La Fenice's reopening, November 23, 2004)

Charles T. Downey, Werther at the Met (January 11, 2004)
It is at the foot of that T or cross that Athanael kneels for his prayer at the end of the scene, falling down and experiencing a vision. This is supposed to show, according to the libretto's text, Thaïs miming a scene about the loves of Aphrodite, on the stage of the Alexandria amphitheater. Pizzi gives us instead a much more erotic ballet scene, lit in gorgeous red light, with the principal dancer, mostly nude, leading a group of dancers covered by a heavy cloth. Even if Athanael does not realize it yet, we are made to realize that he is driven by his lustful desire for Thaïs, not by any hope of converting her, as he finally admits as she dies at the end of the opera. Is this a subject that fascinated Massenet? After all, Manon also features a young clergyman (Des Grieux is studying in the seminary) seduced by a whore with a heart of gold.

The nudity is not limited to the female dancers, as Thaïs appears at the opening of Act II with two unclothed male attendants. They are both careful to face away from the audience (even in Italy, there are limits). The libretto says only that Thais is accompanied by "quelques histrions et d'un petit groupe de comédiennes," or a few actors and a small group of actresses. You might think that this is gratuitous on Pizzi's part, but the aim, I think, is to show the carnal delights of the life that Thaïs will sacrifice.

The most famous music of the whole opera is the famous Méditation, a sweet melody for solo violin, accompanied mostly by light strings and harp. The libretto gives no direction for what this music depicts, only the word meditation. Just before we hear it, Thaïs rejects Athanael's demand that she repent, laughingly vowing to live as freely as she wants. Pizzi has her recline on a couch as Athanael kneels and continues to pray. During the Méditation music, the vision of a single nude female dancer appears above Thaïs. (If you have ever wondered what a ballet dancer's body looks like, it is shockingly muscled.) The dancer is raised up on the same T-cross, now with rungs like a ladder. At the climax of the music, she climbs to the top and hangs on the crossbar, as if on the cross. It was truly stunning to watch, creating an image in the background like the crucifix. As Eros/Christ dies and slumps on the cross, the roses on Thaïs's couch instantly fall to the floor, revealing a thorny bed. The audience did not even applaud but waited in stunned silence until the next scene, in which Thaïs tells Athanael that his words convinced her, began.

Some people have been and probably would be offended by this staging, but the ballet in this production is just gorgeous, visually stunning, and beautifully choreographed. I found nothing in it in bad taste or offensive to me as a Catholic. Instead, it did what opera directors can sometimes do, revealing something profound about the work beyond what is on the surface of the music and libretto. However, one could definitely not show this DVD to high school humanities students.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the favorable review of an extremely interesting production. I also was shocked by the musculature of the dancer during the Meditation! It seemed to me to go against the soft lyric nature of the music - she would have been more beautiful dressed. Very good music throughout but I can understand why it is rarely performed - there is only one scene which demands you re-watch it - the final death scene with the famed Meditation sung as a duet. That was breath-taking. As for the nudity, it simply reflects the opera's source. In France's novel, Nicias's two young female slaves (who undress Athenael near the beginning of the opera) are explicitly naked. I have no doubt this is an authentic picture of pagan, hedonistic Alexandria - the girls are servile eye-candy. The nudity would be inappropriate in "Dialogues of the Carmelites", but is not out of place here.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I found the dance all the more beautiful because she was muscular. What could be more wonderful and erotic than a strong, healthy woman dancing with such consummate grace?