Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Haitink at the Lucerne Festival

Bernard Haitink’s monumental Bruckner and Mahler performances with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) got me hooked on classical music. His legendary performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in C-minor, where in the Finale loosened plaster fell from the Concertgebouw ceiling, is still recounted in Amsterdam.

BBC Prom 45 - Janáček: The Makropulos Affair

Karita Mattila was born to sing Emilia Marty, the diva around whom revolves Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos). At Prom 45, she shone all the more because she was conducted by Jirí Belohlávek and performed alongside a superb cast from the National Theatre, Prague, probably the finest and most idiomatic exponents of this repertoire.

Two Tales of Offenbach: Opera della Luna at Wilton's Music Hall

‘Two outrageous operas in one crazy evening,’ reads the bill. Hyperbole? Certainly not when the operas are two of Jacques Offenbach’s more off-the-wall bouffoneries and when the company is Opera della Luna whose artistic director, Jeff Clarke, is blessed with the comic imagination and theatrical nous to turn even the most vacuous trivia into a sharp and sassy riotous romp.

Britten Untamed! Glyndebourne: A Midsummer Night's Dream

This performance of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Glyndebourne was so good that it was the highlight of the whole season, making the term ‘revival’ utterly irrelevant. Jakub Hrůša is always stimulating, but on this occasion, his conducting was so inspired that I found myself closing my eyes in order to concentrate on what he revealed in Britten's quirky but brilliant score. Eyes closed in this famous production by Peter Hall, first seen in 1981?

Salzburg encores

A staged piano recital and an opera as a concert.  Pianist András Schiff accompanied the Salzburg Marionette Theater at the Mozarteum Grosser Saal and Anna Netrebko sang Manon Lescaut at the Grosses Festspielhaus.

Leah Crocetto at Santa Fe

On August 4, 2016, soprano Leah Crocetto and accompanist Tamara Sanikidze gave a recital at the Scottish Rite Center in Santa Fe New Mexico. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Contest, this year Crocetto was singing Donna Anna in Santa Fe Opera’s excellent Don Giovanni.

Angela Meade at Sante Fe

On July 31, 2016, against the ethereal beauty of the main hall in the Scottish Rite Center, soprano Angela Meade and pianist Joe Illick gave a recital offering both opera and art songs ranging in origin from early nineteenth century Europe to mid twentieth century America. Many in the audience probably remembered Meade’s recent excellent portrayal of Norma at Los Angeles Opera.

Turco in Italia in Pesaro

When more is definitely more, and less would indeed be less. Two of the biggest names in Italian theater art collide in an eponymous theater.

Proms Chamber Music 5: Shakespeare at 400

It was the fifth Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall this season, and we were celebrating Shakespeare’s 400th. And, given the extent and range of the composers and artists, and the diversity and profundity of the musical achievement inspired by the Bard, we could probably keep celebrating in this fashion ad infinitum.

La donna del lago in Pesaro

Each August the bleak and leaky, 12,000 seat Arena Adriatica (home of the famed Pesaro basketball team) magically transforms itself into an improvised opera house that boasts the ultimate in opera chic — exemplary Rossini production standards for its now twelve hundred seats.

Proms at … Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

This highly enjoyable Prom, part of 2016’s ‘Proms at …’ mini-series, took as its guiding concept the reopening of London’s theatres following the Restoration, focusing in particular upon musical and dramatic responses to Shakespeare. Purcell, rightly, loomed large, with John Blow and Matthew Locke joining him. Receiving their Proms premieres were the excerpts from Timon of Athens and those from Locke’s The Tempest.

Santa Fe: Straussian Sweet Nothings

With all the bombast of the presidential campaigns rattling in our heads, with invectives being exchanged and measured discussion all but absent, how utterly lovely to retreat and relax into the harmonious soundscape and well-reasoned debate posed in Strauss’ Capriccio, on magnificent display at Santa Fe Opera.

Santa Fe’s Civil War Gounod

When we entered the Crosby Theatre for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette the stage was surprisingly dominated by a somber, semi-circular black mausoleum, many chambers inscribed with scrambled names of US Civil War era dead.

Coolly Elegant Vanessa in the Desert

Molten passions were seething just below the icy Nordic exterior of Santa Fe Opera’s wholly masterful production of Barber’s Vanessa.

Le Comte Ory, Seattle

Farce is probably the most difficult of dramatic comedy sub-genres to put across. A farce got up in the stately robes of opera sets its presenters an even higher bar. Presenting an operatic farce on a notoriously chilly and cavernous auditorium is to risk catastrophe.

Racette’s Golden Girl in New Mexico

Fan interest began raging when Santa Fe Opera engaged venerable artist Patricia Racette to make her role debut as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.

Santa Fe’s Mozart Cast Sweeps All Before It

A funny thing happened on the way to Andalusia.

Die Liebe der Danae in Salzburg

The tale of a Syrian donkey driver. And, yes, the donkey stole the show! The competition was intense — the Vienna Philharmonic and the Grosses Festspielhaus in full production regalia for starters.

Snape Proms: Bostridge sings Brahms and Schumann

Two men, one woman. Both men worshipped and enshrined her in their music. The younger man was both devotee of and rival to the elder.

Cosi fan tutte in Salzburg

This Cosi fan tutte concludes the Salzburg Festival's current Mozart / DaPonte cycle staged by Sven-Eric Bechtolf, the festival's head of artistic planning.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Renée Fleming as Thais [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
22 Dec 2008

Thaïs: A Star Vehicle — In Overdrive

The Metropolitan Opera’s high-definition broadcast on radio and by satellite to movie theatres around the Nation, December 20 was Jules Massent’s 1894 star vehicle, Thaïs — the sadly ironic tale of a 4th Century Egyptian courtesan who grows tired of the long hours and demanding nature of her work, and is thinking of a career change.

J. Massenet: Thaïs

Thaïs (Renée Fleming); Nicias (Michael Schade); Athanaël (Thomas Hampso); Palémon (Alain Vernhes); Crobyle (Alyson Cambridge); Myrtale (Ginger Costa-Jackson); La Charmeuse (Leah Partridge); Albine (Maria Zifchak). The Metropolitan Opera. David Chan, concert master. Jesús López-Cobos, conducting.

Above: Renée Fleming as Thais

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera

 

Little does this lady know who and what lurks just around the corner: Salvation by a Fundamentalist Christian. But we’ll come back to that.

It is usual to look down one’s nose and say Thaïs is only done, like Puccini’s La fanciulla del West and many another famous opera, when you have a major star to sing it. It’s ‘merely’ a star vehicle and cannot stand on its own merits. Of course you don’t do Wagner operas, do you, unless there is a top flight vocal star to sing — Brunnhilde, Isolde, Elisabeth and so on? But ‘vehicle’ is the key word. Wagner is never a ‘vehicle’ composer, for his music is too innovative, too granitic, too magnificent, too important for that — and with Wagner, always, the star is: Wagner. But with lesser composers, which includes just about everyone else, the call to write a showpiece for a famous star is hard to resist. Massenet met the demand when he wrote Thaïs for Sybil Sanderson, the neurotic American soprano, who was generally regarded at the time as his mistress, and a major theatrical attraction.

THAIS_Schade_Hampson_1273a.pngMichael Schade as Nicias and Thomas Hampson as Athanaël

Lately, the big opera house in New York has been doing all it can to favor Renée Fleming, for she is the Met’s unquestionably brightest star. And that seems to bother a lot of people, most especially it raises the hackles of a crowd affectionately known as “opera queens,” a group of indeterminate age and sexual-orientation, who mainly live in or about New York (though they exist everywhere), that take pleasure in critiquing the negatives in just about anything they run across. Lately Mme. Fleming’s courtesan has been well-relished fodder for their threshings, and Massenet’s oeuvre has been caught up in their dust and declared out of date, second rate piffle (I wonder, is there first-rate piffle?).

OK, I’ll take the bait! I am here to tell you that Miss Fleming IS a star, because she has earned that status by an unusual lot of talent, discipline and hard work, and Massenet’s opera is quite a bit more than mere ‘vehicle.’ It is thoughtful, well-composed and touching music theatre, when adequately performed. And, is the very coin of the Belle Epoch, Second Empire France — a yeasty and remarkably fruitful period in the arts, and especially operatic arts — France ruled nearly supreme in the opera houses of the western world for several decades back then. For some of us, French opera is still a highly-valued aesthetic wonder. Massenet’s music is a delicious confection, of melody, pointed harmony and organization; of its kind and in its day, it was/is hard to beat.

THAIS_scene_Act_1_1560a.pngAlyson Cambridge as Crobyle, Thomas Hampson as Athanaël and Ginger Costa-Jackson as Myrtale

Here is my argument: Massenet’s operas, Saint-Saens’ works, and those of Gounod, Bizet, Ambroise Thomas, G. Charpentier, and many others of that French school, must be taken in context, treated as valued period pieces and given full respect. If you have star singers so much the better because they draw audiences (“anything Fleming does, I want to see”), and throw the glow of stardom over their roles. In the late decades of 19th Century France, mixing religion and sex was found to be the drug of choice for audiences craving potent entertainment, and box offices looking for patrons. In opera, erotic sensuality clothed in pious religiosity was highly acceptable to the values of both Church and State, and catered to public moral approval in works such as Samson et Dalila (oh, that Bacchanal!), Faust (poor weak Marguerite, but she was saved by Angels in the end), Le jongleur de Notre-Dame (the blessing of Jean the juggler by the Virgin Mary), even unto Italy in 1918 with Puccini’s Suor Angelica, and many operas, oratorios and stage pieces too numerous to mention. There is just one hitch: You cannot update these pieces, give them modern-day regietheatre treatment or extreme concept productions, or you kill the innate aesthetic-emotional core of the work. You don’t make fun of something meant to be taken seriously, and still enjoy it. The Chicago Lyric-NY Met production by John Cox, et. al. was traditional, if with a couple of acknowledgments to Massenet’s time. It worked.

There were many moist eyes in Santa Fe’s Lensic Performing Arts Center when the Meditation was wonderfully played by Met Opera violinist David Chan, and again when that immortal melodic sweetmeat returned at the end for Thaïs’s final duet with Thomas Hampson’s religious nut Athanaël (clearly a Freudian case), who led her from being working girl to holy sister and an early death, strong emotion was perfectly appropriate. “Strange how potent cheap music is,” famously and sardonically commented Noel Coward — I would omit ‘cheap,’ amend it to read ‘...well-composed easily accessible music which touches most listeners.’ The critics and cynics of New York rain on such on-the-cuff operatic emotion, and I can only say it is their sad loss. Massenet understood the human voice and wrote for it brilliantly — Fleming said in an intermission comment, “Thaïs’s music lives in the middle voice and that’s perfect for me;” many another well-grounded vocalist would agree.

THAIS_scene_Act_3_6295a.pngRenée Fleming as Thaïs and Thomas Hampson as Athanaël at an oasis near Mère Albine’s settlement (Act III, scene 1)

But what about Fleming — how ‘star’ was her performance? It proved a perfect assumption. I cannot imagine any prominent soprano today who could better her achievement, or even match it and sing the role with such mastery and ease. At this ripe point in Fleming’s career (she will be age-50 next Valentine’s Day), her instrument is as lissome and tonally beautiful as it will ever be, while her high-register remains thrillingly adequate to any task she sets about. Opening night (Dec. 8), critics noted discomfort with two high D-naturals in the death scene duet; then it was learned the singer had just recovered from a bad cold (though no announcement was made). Later performances found her in perfect health, and December 20 her voice floated magically, and reached the highest tones with beautiful élan. Let it be noted that previous star-turn Thaïs productions featuring top prima donnas of their day, and I refer to Mary Garden and Geraldine Farrar in the 1900s & 1910s, whose singing was not close to the quality offered by Fleming. Garden and Farrar were ‘personality’ singers, public darlings, early movie stars and prominent social figures. Neither of those admirable artists had voices to compare with Fleming’s rich lyric-soprano and neither had her ease in the top range. I heard Leontyne Price sing Thaïs in 1959, in a rather embarrassingly silly Lyric Opera of Chicago production (I recall Nicias wearing a lime-green chiffon skirt to his mid-thigh — poor Leopold Simoneau!), with Price over-singing the music in a heavy dense soprano, and not having a clue as to how to act it. These ‘star vehicles’ are not for just any vocal Cadillac are they?

Since I deem Thaïs a beautiful, well-polished, if dated, piece of exoticism well worth enjoying, I will also say that Fleming’s acting reminds one of pre-Stanislavskian times. Hers is not internalized acting of the Method School. She approaches her role as OUD — object of universal desire, a sort of generalized eroticism with Mae West-esque narcissistic preening or, as may be required, modest downcast-eyed shame & regret when her world’s-oldest profession is brought up, as it boringly often is by her doubting Thomas Athanaël, or joy and happiness as the Gates of Heaven open to her. The smile is always there, always the same smile, and very beautiful. The sculpted visage has no better side for all sides are perfect; she is at ease and relaxed in every stance, and seems to be having a good time, even when playing a bad time. Well hell — did Bette Davis ever play anything other than Bette Davis? But could Bette sing a sustained high-C? You get my point. Fleming’s invocation of Venus over the fuming senseur in Act II was so ravishingly sung and given an HD, Gloria Swanson close-up — it easily passed inspection. If you are bothered by full Monty operatic camp, maybe this parable of Egyptian Christianity is not for you, but if high style, haute exotisme, played and sung with energy and aplomb move you, as it did this observer, then the Met’s 2008 production should be just your cup of almond tea. Go for it! In terms of the style and time in which Massenet’s opera was written, one could argue we saw ideally realized star vehicle. And it was musical perfection.

J. A. Van Sant © 2008

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):