26 Dec 2008
Thaïs at the MET
Everyone who likes Massenet’s Thaïs seems to feel obliged to apologize for it, or to become defensive: it’s not that bad, they all seem to say.
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Everyone who likes Massenet’s Thaïs seems to feel obliged to apologize for it, or to become defensive: it’s not that bad, they all seem to say.
Or, as Mark Twain said about Wagner, it’s better than it sounds – a line Twain could get away with because Wagner was already too big a cultural cheese to worry about wisecracks by that time, and because Twain was famous for curmudgeonry, not for his music criticism. (Quick: name a composer Twain ever praised.) But we have to insist, if we want to defend Thaïs, that it’s better than it sounds, because it doesn’t sound very impressive.
There’s the famous Méditation, of course – I’ve been told it brings tears to the eyes of the Japanese, because it is always played on the radio whenever an emperor dies, but only two emperors have died since the invention of radio, so I’m not sure how they can have developed such an association. It brings tears to my eyes only after a performance of Thaïs, when that damned saxophone player performs it atrociously on the subway platform below Lincoln Center. (Don’t give him any money – it won’t make him stop.)
The trouble is that Massenet’s gift for melody and characterization and pathos, while ideal for the story of the shallow waif who is Manon or the self-romanticizing Werther, is way out its depth when trying to handle the story of Thaïs, in which two supposedly serious figures undergo serious religious self-questioning – Thaïs in renouncing the goddess of love for Christianity, Athanaël in renouncing Christian mortification of the flesh for human passion. The Méditation in the background (as it pretty much always is, from the time we first hear it between the scenes of Act II) does not give the impression Massenet intended of Wagnerian “motivation,” of musical reflection of poetic and ecstatic states of feeling; it is just repetitious underscoring, movie music composed before pictures moved.
Mary Garden as Thaïs
Ironically, though, the most persuasive case for Thaïs that I’ve ever seen was the silent 1917 film starring Mary Garden, long a major singer of the role, but more of a singing (and dancing) actress than a Voice. She was 43 by the time she filmed it, and she doesn’t look like a sexy young vamp (how did she perform Salome at that age? In French, and at a great distance from her audience), but she is invariably interesting – the inward, haunted look of her eyes giving us many a lingering glimpse (all we need, really) of the emotional conflict at the heart of her story but hardly to be found in Massenet’s score. And the pianist who accompanied the film (there was also a violin for the Méditation, of course) knew his Massenet. Between reels of this splendid artifact from a gilded age, L’Opéra Français de New York presented scenes from the opera itself, sung by soprano Caroline Worra and baritone Stephen Powell. They made a far better case for Thaïs, were far more effective as music-drama, than the recent run at the Met or the ghastly previous one in 1978.
There’s no point to the debate: Thaïs is what it is; it appeals to you or it doesn’t. Image helps. Thaïs is a vehicle – unlike Wagner’s works, it does not succeed even when performers do not bewitch; Thaïs makes any effect at all only if the diva is sexy and the baritone ardent and the production visually opulent. Take the music by itself, and it fades like a desert mirage or the visions of a mystic. Was it really there at all?
Renée Fleming as Thaïs and Thomas Hampson as Athanaël [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
The current Met production, hand-me-down (with leads) from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, is being presented because Renée Fleming wished to sing it, and Fleming pretty much guarantees a sellout (as few divas do, these days), so that’s an excellent argument – especially if you can borrow the production ready made, not waste too much company money on it, and need never bring it back again. Miss Fleming is a pretty woman (prettier than Mary Garden, and with far more voice), and glamour is currently at a premium at the Met. Designers compete for the chance to dress the Diva of the Moment, as once they did when Geraldine Farrar and Lina Cavalieri ruled that particular roost (they both sang Thaïs). But such glamour is not easily faked, and I never get the feeling Fleming cares whether her image dazzles or not – it’s not the highest rung for her – which, frankly, is to her credit. She’s a more serious musician than that. Still, in a role like Thaïs, when she must play the glamour card, Fleming never convinces us that she is in form, that she has a link, a private line, to the goddess Venus who, we notice in the famous mirror scene in Act II, does not seem to be taking her calls. And as for the fluffy Christian Lacroix costumes, diaphanous pink seldom flatters anyone over twelve, and a costumier should notice that long, crimped blond locks and an off-one-shoulder gown are not the ideal desert look for an aspirant nun. These things can be as important as the singing in so gauzy a work as Thaïs – they certainly were for Garden, Cavalieri and Farrar, if not for Fleming. Fleming is sending sexy back – with the receipt – for a credit.
I admit to being puzzled, to working hard to understand my own unease with the way Fleming produces sound, and the sort of sound she produces. The voice has always been lovely, but years and years of affectation have made it less so. When I hear her, I keep trying to find a core to it – it is like a thick velvet cover too thick to penetrate. The plush has a late-Victorian shimmer to it, but I’m never sure anything firm exists below. Too, the register break between this velvety body and the upper register is startling – the upper octave or so, especially when coloratura is called for (or, in Massenet, high emotion of any sort) is a thin, shrill sound with no connection to the rest of the voice. I found her varying of the line, her wandering from clear singing to punctuations, to almost spoken notes, to disembodied head voice in the middle of a phrase, distracting, unbeautiful, and not particularly dramatic. Such affectations are why I try to avoid Fleming in any Italian role, but her French roles are similarly dishonest; she only seems to favor the notes of the part clearly and honestly in German and Russian works. She applies herself to the composer’s intention at such times. Otherwise, she relies on the basic prettiness of the sound to win over all hearers no matter how she abuses it.
One reason I regard these things as affectations is because Fleming tends to drop them and fall back on honest singing whenever she must duet with another artist. Her plea to Venus went for naught but, immediately afterwards, her debate with Thomas Hampson, the dredlocked Athanaël, and the brief duet in the desert outside the convent in Act III (at the one and only time in their acquaintance when the characters agree about anything) were the vocal moments worth remembering from this performance. She was pumping out voice in an artless style here, and one could suspect a woman, and real music, existed behind the velvet shimmer. But neither Fleming nor Massenet offers enough of such meat in Thaïs to fill an entire evening satisfactorily.
Hampson’s once too-confident, even boring instrument was showing its age or the weather in Act I, when his self-lacerating doubts were ineffective, but he too warmed up in confrontation for some impassioned duetting. Michael Schade gave a handsome account of Nicias, the party-boy friend to all parties, and the orchestra played if anything too sweetly for Jesús López-Cobos, not least David Chan’s violin solo for the Méditation. John Cox’s sets depicted a gorgeous blue desert sky and a glitzy art deco mansion (so right for the fifth century A.D.), but the final tableau in which Thaïs, dying in an odor of Christian sanctity and self-deprivation, is presented as a goddess enthroned on an altar, was a bit startling – though to this writer, rather a winsome touch.