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Recordings

Jules Massenet: Thaïs
27 Jun 2010

Massenet's Thaïs at Teatro Regio Torino

What sort of production would be optimal for an opera that with more style than content?

Jules Massenet: Thaïs

Thaïs: Barbara Frittoli; Athanaël: Lado Ataneli; Nicias: Alessandro Liberatore; Palémon: Maurizio Lo Piccolo; Albine: Nadežda Serdyuk; Crobyle: Eleonora Buratto; Myrtale: Kete van Kemoklidze; La Charmeuse: Daniela Schillaci; Un serviteur: Diego Matamoros. Torino Teatro Regio Chorus (chorus master: Roberto Gabbiani). Torino Teatro Regio Orchestra. Gianandrea Noseda, conductor. Stefano Poda, stage director, choreographer, set, costume and light designer. Recorded live from the Teatro Regio Torino, 2008.

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A good place to evaluate one's answer to that question comes in the form of this DVD of Stefano Poda's staging of Thaïs by Jules Massenet (composer) and Louis Gallet (libretto). Viewers who find the opera slightly risible but who still enjoy the music are likely to be amused and fascinated by Poda's over-the-top aesthetic, part dance and performance art spectacle, part out-of-control fashion runway show. Anyone actually captivated by the opera's conjunction of overripe sexuality and pained religiosity may be much less pleased.

A fairly long opera for its story, Thaïs has a cast listing of 9 roles, but the story never strays far from the title character and her admirer, a monk who sets out to convert the courtesan from her sinful ways and put her on the path to righteousness. In the end, the monk Athanaël finds himself over come by her attractions, but it is too late for his own conversion to sensuality, as Thaïs can no longer respond, having forsaken her former life and then, after being born again, rather abruptly dying.

The Metropolitan Opera recently staged Thaïs with stars Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson in the leading roles, and stars of that magnitude are needed. Without their charisma, a flimsy story and the fallows of the score between its 2 or 3 highlights make for a forgettable evening. Excellent singers both, such charisma doesn't get projected by Barbara Frittoli or Lado Ataneli, caught on this recording in live performance from 2008 at the Teatro Regio Torino. Frittoli has beauty enough for the role, edging just a bit into Rubenesque territory. Only in her big scene, the so-called Mirror aria, does the relative blandness of her vocal instrument come into too close focus. Ataneli, no actor, doesn't do much more than glower and look down, and in his dark floor-length tunic he looks a bit like Rasputin on a Middle East holiday. His handsome voice, however, makes credible the growing attraction the courtesan feels for him. In the only other truly notable role, as Thaïs's Babylonian sugar daddy Nicias, Alessandro Liberatore doesn't so much disappear into the role as just disappear.

What makes this show a fascinating experience is the total design effort of director Stefano Poda, who also choreographs and designs the sets, costumes, and lighting. He has no interest in pretending this is a naturalistic story of early AD Babylon. He plays with black, mostly in the costumes, and white in the sets. He does not attempt much differentiation between the libretto's settings, opting instead for a stylized dimension where barely clothed dancers sweep on and off, illustrating the action in the opera's extensive instrumental passages. It all borders on the silly, but so does the opera. Poda's flow of invention in creating eye-catching stage pictures makes the show not just bearable but actually fairly entertaining, especially seen in the incredibly crisp and detailed Blu-Ray picture.

Gianandrea Noseda elicits sensuous playing from the house orchestra. The production in the Metropolitan Opera's performances, broadcast last year in the HD Moviecast series, was also fairly stylized, but it didn't draw attention to itself the way Poda's does. If that sounds like criticism of this version, stay away. If it sounds appealing, check it out.

Chris Mullins


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