To the wider world, Massenet means not Manon or Werther but the Meditation from Thaïs, a beautifully spun violin melody that touches the heart. It was refreshing, for a change, to hear it in its proper context, played not just with exceptional refinement by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s leader, James Clark, but with the choral humming that gets cut when the Meditation is played in isolation.
Thaïs was included in this year’s East meets West festival programme on the flimsy pretext that the action unfolds in Egypt – but if the Middle East qualifies, so does Giulio Cesare, not to mention Aida, Nabucco and Otello. No bother: Thaïs needs no extra-musical justification if the performance is as good as this. Massenet was a sensualist of the first order and, like Wagner, knew that the best cradle for carnality was chastity: no other 19th-century composer would dare quote the Lord’s Prayer in an opera about sex, or end up sanctifying the sinner (the harlot Thaïs) while consigning the saint (the priest Athanaël) to sexual enslavement. He understood that polarities attract, and that bourgeois audiences would devour such lines as “I want the love of your flowered lips” in the corseted confines of the stalls. Thaïs is Massenet’s Kundry and Venus in one – an operatic Mary Magdalene whose voice soars heavenwards in an apotheosis as earthmoving as it is climactic.
Erin Wall is the Thaïs of one’s dreams, wielding a soprano of radiance, pristine beauty and tingling top notes, which she hit with a conviction that only comes with stage experience and a solid technique. Singing without a score, she made us believe every word. Quinn Kelsey was obviously still working himself into the baritone part of Athanaël, but the voice grew in colour as he did in confidence, with Eric Cutler’s Nicias proving a vivid foil. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus (chorus master: Christopher Bell) has never sounded better, and Andrew Davis conducted with a general’s eye and a painter’s touch, so that what impressed was not this scene or that, but the whole performance.
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