Sunday, December 21, 2008

Met - Thaïs - 12/20/08

By Jules Massenet
Conductor: Jesus Lopez-Cobos
Director: John Cox
Thais: Renee Fleming
Athanael: Thomas Hampton
Nicias: Michael Schade

Thaïs may not hold a privileged spot among the famous courtisanes of the opera répertoire, but yesterday afternoon the new Met production proved to be a sure-fire winner, and not just because of the presence of Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampton. A mostly engaging, if longish, study of the eternally uneasy relation between sex and religion set in 4th century Egypt, it most importantly boasts a beautifully understated score featuring the ever-popular Méditation. It hasn't been staged by the Met since 1978 and is generally performed only on rather rare occasions due to the daunting task of casting the two leads. But yesterday's pairing, and the whole production indeed, really hit the jackpot.

Right from the start, the deep blue of the sky violently contrasting with the bright yellow of the sand made this simple combination powerfully evocative of the harsh living conditions of the desert. The other sets were mostly efficiently designed as well, even if occasionally a bit off-putting: I'm not sure a woman of the slightest taste would have blue walls next to a purple carpet in her bedroom (or anywhere else for that matter), and I couldn't make much of the altar-like set-up Thaïs would eventually die on. On the other hand, the costumes were generally gorgeous, and the diva's dresses, created especially for her by Christian Lacroix, fit her role and her body to perfection, except maybe for an obsession with sleeves inexplicably and rather awkwardly dragging all the way down to the floor. Who could forget her first appearance, literally resplendent from head to toe, from her cascading blond curls to her luscious golden dress?
Even more than the visual elements, the music was particularly arresting. Much more subtle than your typical operatic fare, what with the fierce expressiveness of the Germans or the hyper-melodic drama of the Italians, Massenet's delicately crafted score closely followed his characters' psychological evolutions. Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampton handled their technically challenging parts with all the talent they're renowned for, her solid command of the middle-voice tessitura being the perfect match to his wide-ranging deep register, and their obvious chemistry added a profoundly human dimension to what could have easily been a simple orientalism-infused harlot-with-a-heart-of-gold tale. The rest of the cast has to be praised as well, and the violinist David Chan deserves a very special mention for an impeccably soaring Méditation.
Yes, some parts dragged a bit: did we really need a belly dancer to channel oriental debauchery? The image may have been deliciously exotic in 19th century France, but nowadays it is essentially an unnecessary number, even if well-executed. The positive, however, easily trumped the negative, and this new Thaïs turned out to be a well-packaged combination of narrative, musical and visual enjoyments, and should enjoy long and prosperous runs with the Met audiences for many years to come.

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