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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

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