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Geraldine Farrar as Thaïs
09 Mar 2008

MASSENET: Thaïs

Thaïs: Comédie lyrique in three acts and seven scenes.

Jules Massenet: Thaïs

Renee Fleming (Thaïs)
Simone Alberghini (Athanaël)
Joseph Calleja (Nicias)
Robert Lloyd (Palémon)
Ana James (Crobyle)
Liora Grodnikaite (Myrtale)
Clare Shearer (Albine)
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Andrew Davis (cond.)
Live performance, 27 June 2007, Royal Opera House, London

 

Music composed by Jules Massenet. Libretto by Louis Gallet after the novel of the same title by Anatole France.

First Performance: 16 March 1894, Opéra, Paris

Principal Characters:
Thaïs, actress and courtesan Soprano
Athanaël, a Cenobite monk Baritone
Nicias, a wealthy friend of Athanaël Tenor
Palémon, an old Cenobite monk Bass
Albine, abbess Mezzo-Soprano
Crobyle, a slave Soprano
Myrtale, a slave Soprano

Setting: Alexandria and the Egyptian desert during the early Christian era.

Synopsis:

Act I

Scene 1 — In a time when Alexandria is wrapped in luxury and profligacy, Thaïs, a priestess of Venus, is recognized as the most beautiful of women. Athanaël, a Cenobite monk, who has been to the city in an effort to preach the gospel, returns to his devout associates with strange stories of Alexandria’s wickedness. Even though wearied by his journey, his sleep is troubled by a vision of Thaïs, posing in the Alexandrian Theatre before a great throng who noisily applaud her beauty. Awaking with a start, he is determined to “reform” her, and against the advice of the aged monk, Palémon, he sets out upon this mission.

Scene 2 — In Alexandria, Athanaël has a friend of his former unregenerate days named Nicias, whose palace occupies a commanding situation. Nicias greets his old friend with courtesy, but is moved to laughter at his apparently whimsical notion of reforming the lovely Thaïs, upon whom Nicias himself has squandered a fortune. Willing to help for old times’ sake, however, he has his household slaves array Athanaël in rich robes, concealing his monkish habit. When at last Thaïs herself arrives she is at first repelled yet intrigued by this austere visitor. Athanaël tells her that he has come to bring her to the only true God, as whose humble but jealous servant he stands before her. Thaïs’ reply is characteristically pagan—she believes in the joy of living; but she is none the less impressed. Athanaël leaves, horrified, as Thaïs begins to disrobe, to pose as Venus.

Act II

Scene 1 — In her room lies Thaïs. The floor is carpeted with precious rugs from Byzantium, the air laden with the exotic perfumes of flowers in vases of agate . . . incense burns before a statue of Venus ... yet Thaïs is wearied of the world, her luxury . . . the words of the strange monk haunt her memory . . . she fears that beauty and happiness will quickly fade. Taking a mirror, she contemplates herself, and begs it to assure her that she shall be forever beautiful.

At this moment comes Athanaël, who speaks to her of life everlasting, and eternal beauty of the spirit. She at first tries to triumph over him with her allurements, then succumbs to fear. The inexorable Athanaël leaves, declaring, “On thy threshold till dawn I shall await thy coming.” The curtain falls, but the orchestra continues playing the famous “Meditation,” symbolical of the conversation of Thaïs. To a harp accompaniment, a solo violin plays a melody of indescribable sweetness and expressiveness.

Scene 2 — True to his word Athanaël waits before her house. From another house nearby come sounds of revelry. Towards dawn, Thaïs appears, worn and repentant after a night of emotion, ready now to follow her holy guide into the wilderness. She leaves everything behind, and begs only for a small statue of Eros—love himself, for she says, love has long been a rare virtue, and begs that they may take the statue along to set up in some monastery as an emblem of the love celestial.

Athanaël listens patiently enough until she remarks that this was a gift from Nicias. Thereupon, Athanaël immediately seizes the statue and casts it to the ground, shattering it into a thousand fragments. They enter her palace to destroy the treasures—relics of “hell” there guarded; Thaïs accepts this sacrifice without demur.

As soon as they have gone, Nicias appears, having won heavily at the games. He orders dancing, wine and music. When Thaïs and the stern monk return, they are greeted by a scene of revelry. This quickly changes to a near riot, for the companions of Nicias are enraged at the prospective loss of Thaïs, and at Athanaël, for in his zeal he has set fire to her palace. The crowd are about to seize and kill the monk. To save him, Nicias throws gold coins among them, and as the people scramble for the money, Athanaël and Thaïs depart for the desert and a life of repentance.

Act III

Scene 1 — Tortured by lack of water, and weary from her long journey across the desert, Thaïs nearly faints although the journey is almost over. The monk remorselessly drives her on, bidding her “mortify the flesh,” and she goes willingly. Finally, however, she staggers with weakness, and Athanaël, moved to pity, allows her to lie down while he bathes her feet, and gives her fruit and water from the oasis at which they have arrived.

Thaïs now seems uplifted, beyond the dominion of flesh, into great spiritual exaltation; she is glad when the Abbess Albine and the White Sisters come to lead her into a cell in the convent, a short way off. She has found that peace for which her soul craved. Only Athanaël is troubled.

Scene 2 — Back among the brethren at the Cenobites’ camp, Athanaël is compelled to confess to the aged Palémon that he has saved Thaïs at the cost of his own soul. Passionately raging at himself, he strives to cast out of his mind the memories of her human weakness and of her intoxicating beauty. Yet he longs for her . . . in his sleep, a vision comes to him of Thaïs, lovely, self-sure, mocking, as he first beheld her in Alexandria; then the vision changes . . . her face lighted with the fervor of religious mysticism as she lies dying in the convent. With a cry of terror he awakens and rushes out into the darkness.

Scene 3 — Thaïs, worn with repentance and self-denial, is dying surrounded by the White Sisters, who respectfully withdraw when Athanaël enters. Utterly distraught, the monk implores Thaïs to return with him to Alexandria, there they shall live happily . . . all that he has taught her has been lies.

The ecstatic music of the “Meditation” soars calmly aloft in the orchestra, and Thaïs, heedless of the words of Athanaël, sings of the gates of heaven opening before her . . . the smiles of angels . . . the beating of their wings. Suddenly she falls back dead, and Athanaël, cheated by himself, cries out in despair.

[Synopsis Source: The Victor Book of the Opera (10th ed. 1929)]

Click here for the complete libretto.

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