Thaïs, Jules Massenet’s sensational double portrait of raging piety and desire, shocked and alarmed the Catholic Church even before its Paris premiere in March 1894. The inspiration for the piece, an eponymous novel by Anatole France, éminence grise of turn of the century French letters, had promptly landed on the Vatican’s proscribed list shortly after publication four years earlier, an overtly erotic saga of a love-obsessed monk. Sensing an almost guaranteed operatic hit, Massenet rushed to claim the theatrical rights. With an only slightly more circumspect libretto by literary adventurer Louis Gallet set as experimental poésie mélique, the lusty 3-act lyric drama stormed into the Palais Garnier where it reigned virtually unaltered for over half a century.
Less surprising perhaps than might be expected given its historical pedigree, Thaïs, though infrequently performed today, has lost none of its power to grip the imagination as amply demonstrated at Roy Thomson Hall late last week.
Marshalling a prodigious display of orchestral and vocal resources, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra treated near sold out audiences to an all too brief two-night run of landmark concert performances conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Partnered by a phalanx of one hundred plus choristers courtesy the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir directed by David Fallis, a succession of enthusiastic soloists and ensemblists provided proof positive of the intensely emotional, grandly operatic tale’s abiding power to seduce.
Massenet’s music arguably reaches a pinnacle of expressiveness in Thaïs. Character speaks as vibrantly in the rising and falling patter of notes as in Gallet’s frank flow of blank verse.
The story here is one of discovery. Athanaël, fanatical ascetic plagued by erotic dreams journeys across the burning Sahara in search of the object of his obsession, the legendary temptress and priestess of Venus, Thaïs. Her conversion, he reasons, will rid her of visionary fleshy torment. And subtextually by association free him from temptation. Horns sound, strings surge as he enters Alexandria, la terrible cité by the sea, the chromaticism emblematic of an almost Wagnerian quest.
An infinity of orchestral interludes and intermezzi create soundscapes, both scenic and psychic. A single wistful violin speaks of salvation as Thaïs reflects on her dissolute life. Pausing at an oasis en route to a lonely desert convent, monk and courtesan each embarked on their own journey of self-realization, arrive at an epiphany. An exotic reedy motif links ominous brass and shimmering strings, the crushing Egyptian sun beating down on souls in flux. Sanctimoniousness to bodily surrender, sin to salvation, Athanaël and Thaïs journey in opposite directions, Massenet’s score soundly embodying their inner odysseys as they progress from blind existence to fresh states of being.
The TSO under Davis’ commanding lead ably captured every fleeting shift in tone, every recurring motif. Concertmaster, first violinist Jonathan Crow, soloed with impeccable poignancy in the justifiably famed Méditation religeuse. A wholehearted contribution, in fact, from all sections. Violas and cellos proved particularly animated. Percussion was heart thumpingly emphatic.
From a purely actorly point of view, always a challenge to reference in any essentially unstaged presentation, a thoughtful degree of welcome attention was paid, however understated, to dramatic integrity. The provision for story made visible was an important feature of Massenet’s operatic protocol, a fundamental tenent of the classic French tradition that looked backwards in time to Gluck and forwards to Debussy, both of whom plus Bizet and Verdi à la francaise can be heard in Thaïs. Some notable effort on the part of cast was made to inject a carefully considered measure of theatricality into the evening.
Appearing as Athanaël, Joshua Hopkins’ steely stage manners proclaimed his character’s eternal inflexibility, clutching his thick binder of music like some treasured holy book. Soprano Erin Wall, limping as an imagined Thaïs crossing a wilderness of sand and newly ignited faith, palpably evoked her character’s pain. Ah! Des gouttes de sang coulent de ses pieds blancs! The dance of La charmeuse, originally conceived as a kind of titillating semi nude ballet, was, if not daringly enacted then at least subtly suggestive, soprano Stacey Tappan’s playfully flirting with Massenet’s seductive music in the stage left organ loft, gauzy shawl draped around her shoulders.
Sensitive singer actorly performances by any standard, principals and comprimari all admirably invested, physically and vocally both.
Hopkins’ assertive reach somewhat lightened by his translucent mid range provided an engaging platform for his maniacal monk. Largely deprived of opportunities to spotlight style and technique by virtue of Massenet’s penchant for declamation rather than aria, the rising young Canadian baritone gave more than ample expression to a succession of smouldering recits and ariosos.
Thaïs, on the other hand, is gifted with a showpiece solo, the justifiably celebrated Mirror Aria. Dis-moi que je suis belle, the anxious enchantress begs, gazing at her reflection. Wall’s bright, polished instrument betrayed a universe of fear, top Cs shading to excruciatingly anguished pianissimo. A touching moment in a fine, potent performance.
Tenor Andrew Staples sang a lush, sensual Nicias, Athanaël’s boyhood friend turned unrepentant hedonist. Soprano Liv Redpath and mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig appeared as slinky, bewitchingly voiced professionals Crobyle and Myrtale. Bass-baritone Nathan Berg was a formidable Palémon, knowing old monk and guardian of souls. Mezzo-soprano Emilia Boteva movingly sang the deeply spiritual, reverent Mother Superior, Albine.
With its vast orchestration and crisp focus on strong, elemental harmony, Thaïs strikes deep into the soul of any listener. This is music of great scope and power. Davis and the TSO joined by an impressive array of seasoned singers gave it stirring voice.
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Above: Sir Andrew Davis and TSO musicans with Joshua Hopkins as Athanaël and Erin Wall as Thaïs. Photo: Jag Gundu
TSO concert performances of Thaïs at Roy Thomson Hall November 7 & 9, 2019 have been live recorded by Chandos Records for future release.