The last time we saw Thaïs in the UK it proved a bit of a shocker. Plucky little Grange Park staged Massenet’s sex-and-religion opera last summer and updated it to present-day Las Vegas, where it became the story of a pole dancer being converted to Christianity by a Texan Bible-basher.
Did we really want to see the opera treated so roughly? Maybe not, but at least they made a vivid theatrical show of it. The downside of the Royal Opera’s series of operas in concert is that it provides advance warning that the opera in question is unlikely to get a staging at Covent Garden any time soon.
What we had instead was a pair of concert performances last week that are in effect part of a musical package tour around Europe – Vienna and Paris down, Barcelona still to come. The role of Thaïs is one of Renée Fleming’s signature parts and where opera houses are unwilling to stage the opera for her, as Chicago has,
she is offering it in concert with Andrew Davis, Chicago’s music director, in tow.
Fleming turned up with two dresses in her luggage – red for the courtesan of Acts 1 and 2, pious cream for the would-be nun of Act 3 – and a bag full of star quality. On this form there is no soprano to touch her today. Fleming’s voice might have been born to sing this role, whether sensuously caressing the temptress’s music or soaring aloft radiantly whenever heaven beckoned. Who could be surprised that a poor monk like Athanaël surrendered to her charms? With singing like this around, no monastery is safe.
As though to show token resistance, Andrew Davis conducted Massenet’s luxurious score with an excess of chastity and was rewarded with clean, temperate playing by the Royal Opera orchestra. Simone Alberghini, taking the place of Thomas Hampson, was rather upstaged as Athanaël, sturdily though he sang. Ana James and Liora Grodnikaite did nicely as the two slave girls and tenor Joseph Calleja showed he has returned to fine form as Nicias. But, pole-dancing or no, this was Fleming’s show.
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