Massenet’s Thaïs, anno 1894, is a period piece, a shameless fusion of slick eroticism, perfumed piety and sentimental claptrap. Call it high-class hokum. It is decorated, however, with some lovely music, including that infernal, endlessly recycled “Meditation”. And it does provide a grateful showcase for a lofty soprano and a gutsy baritone.
The “new” production introduced at the Met on Monday, adapted from a version seen in Chicago five years ago, stumbles on various levels. It does make good use, however, of Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson (pictured).
Fleming is Thaïs, the willowy Alexandrian courtesan in quest of holier-than-her salvation. She sings with sensuous purity, phrases elegantly, floats shimmering pianissimo phrases and, when not too distracted, conveys reasonable pathos. Left to what may be her own dramatic devices, she vamps like a Mae West manqué when working her wiles and droops oh-so-sweetly when afflicted with spiritual uplift.
Hampson sings the susceptible monk Athanaël with incisive urgency, verbal point and unexpected power. He strikes valiant poses and almost makes the silly saintly sinner sympathetic.
Michael Schade’s lyric tenor sustains the nasty tessitura of Nicias deftly. Leah Partridge charms as a coloratura interloper appropriately named La Charmeuse. Alain Vernhes contributes gruff grumbling as Palémon. Jesus López-Cobos exudes much competence, if little inspiration, on the podium.
Everyone is sabotaged, in any case, by the staging. John Cox, listed as producer, oversees awkward traffic patterns in a mishmash milieu that spans contradictory periods for no apparent reason. Nicias is required to stagger about his fourth-century manse like a fugitive from Die Fledermaus. The heroine dies her pretty death primly seated atop a massive altar. The décors – attributed to Paul Brown in Chicago but oddly uncredited here – toy with clumsy postmodern stylisation that looks cheap, in both meanings of the term. Not incidentally, the diva-du-jour models incongruous, high-fashion gowns, courtesy of Christian Lacroix, including a superslinky-glitzy thing at seduction time and a chic off-the-shoulder number for her trek through the desert. There must be a better way.
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