Monday, December 22, 2008

Massenet's Opera Thais: Body v. Soul

(Reflections on THAIS by Jules Massenet, starring Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson. Metropolitan Opera production directed by John Cox, broadcast in High Definition, December 20.)

Capsule descriptions of THAIS led me to expect a cynical mix of Victorian religiosity and sensuous titillation, one being used as a cover for the other. The mix was there, and a cynical director could certainly play up those elements, but the libretto and score are thoughtful, subtle, and sincere. The entire opera is based on stark and pleasing symmetry, as the two characters criss-cross to opposite ends of the spectrum from body to soul. Soul wins.

The Met's production begins with an image of desert hermits in ancient Egypt, ceremoniously grateful for water, for food, for honey. Their music is dignified. Brother Athanael, portrayed by Thomas Hampson, arrives from a visit to the sinful city, and he cites the courtesan Thais as totem for the city's hedonism. Soon, he is asleep and dreaming of Thais, who dances. The supple music, orchestrated for harp and some shimmering woodwinds, contrasts with the somewhat plodding and dark sound of Athanael and the brothers. He awakes, saying that he is determined to convert her to Christianity, and thereby to win the entire city. It's plausible, but the music has already told us that his mission is only a cover for his obsession, and a warning from the abbott makes this clear.

In the city, Athanael interacts with Thais's boy toy of the week, and learn that Athanael was once a student there, one of the guys. There's musical and visual contrast that makes Thais's interest in the monk plausible. Next, we see her alone, pleading to her mirror and to the goddess Venus to "tell her" that she will remain beautiful "eternellement," while she clearly detects signs of age in her image. She is amused and then alarmed by Athanael when he comes to her chambers. She admits to him that her pleasures are empty, the "love" is phoney. She is already open to Athanael's message, when she is suddenly struck by his use of that key word, "eternelle," promising eternal life through faith. Shortly, she is repeating her prayer to Venus, resisting the call of conversion; while Athanael prays to God for strength to resist his sensuous attraction to her.

In a backstage interview, soprano Renee Fleming said that the instrumental "meditation" that plays next is, for her, the actual conversion, the pivot of the opera. On the HD screen, the young violinist David Chan seemed to be acting that as we watched his face closely. Later, he confirmed that he was trying to express his own Christian faith in that lovely violin solo.

Later, Thais asks to keep a statuette of "Eros" because, she says, love is good, and only her misunderstanding of it was bad. That seems true. Athanael responds with a burst of righteous indignation which seems false, and that's because it's actually his expression of alarm at his own temptation. We can sense this in Thais's gentle and convincing music, contrasted to Athanael's response, all out of proportion.

The ending brings us to a convent of nuns in white (their abbess named "Albine"), bookending the original scene of dark monks at sunset. The two characters have changed places. Athanael, returning to the convent to find Thais, sings that there is no God, there is nothing but love. But Thais is beyond reach, having been in a vigil without food or rest for days. With her meditation replaying, she sings of seeing the gates of heaven open, and she dies with beatific smile while he mourns. That's a bit soppy, but that's grand opera for you.

All in all, it's convincing and beautiful. Massenet's orchestral colors, and use of repeated melody, and canny contrast (as, following the lyrical meditation with a scene of percussive strumming) are every bit as thoughtful and imaginative as those of Puccini and other composers that I prize.

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