The choice of Jules Massenet’s 1894 opera Thaïs as Opera in Concert for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Mid-Season Gala gave Melbournians a rare opportunity to hear this melodious score performed live. Certainly, the much-loved “Meditation” for solo violin can be heard frequently, but for those who attended this performance and heard it in context, it has taken on a whole new meaning. Concertmaster Eoin Anderson played the “Meditation” with sensitivity and sweet tone for the final item before interval and in later iterations signaling Thaïs’s increasing spiritual enlightenment.
Some listeners might still agree with Debussy’s dismissal of Massenet’s music, condemning it for its “facile charm”, but the program note suggests that Massenet’s blurring of the lines between recitative and aria actually helped to pave the way for Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande, coincidentally the choice of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for their Opera in Concert this year with Charles Dutoit conducting. Whatever the relative merits of these two works, both Dutoit and the MSO’s Sir Andrew Davis showed great devotion to the score and inspired their respective orchestras to give of their best. Released from the confines of the pit, the orchestral writing was displayed to greater advantage; the sound was fuller and watching the players enhanced an appreciation of the instrumentation.
Although the Metropolitan Opera brought Thaïs to much of the opera-going world via their Live in HD broadcast recently, the expensive glamour of their staged performances threatened to dominate the music at times. Fans of operas in concert (and I must confess to being one) come knowing that the music will take centre stage. Besides which, a concert performance can be surprisingly physical and in the case of this MSO performance, the singers made every effort to bring the drama to life.
The only person to carry a score was Quinn Kelsey, who had the biggest role as Athanaël, the Cénobit monk torn between his erotic longing for the courtesan Thaïs and his desire to save her soul by converting her to Christianity. Even so, he made fairly minimal use of the score and was responsive to the other singers. Doubtless his earlier experience in the role at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival with Erin Wall as Thaïs and Sir Andrew conducting was an advantage. His baritone is smooth, sensuous and supremely well suited to the music and the role. He immediately made a strong impression as he greeted the monks in measured tones then denounced the decadent influence of Thaïs with increasing intensity. His portrayal of Athanaël’s conflicted state of mind was at once nuanced and powerful.
The male members of the MSO chorus also established a high standard of well-blended sound at the outset and Daniel Sumegi’s bass created an appropriate sense of authority and gravitas for the role of the old monk, Palemon. It is a pity that the ladies of the chorus outnumbered the gentlemen to such a degree, but they often sang separately, so it was not such a big issue for this work. True bass voices could be heard in the final men’s chorus and the women sang with pleasingly unforced tone both on and off stage.
Athanaël might have the most to sing, but it is Thaïs who is at the heart of the opera. Using a libretto by Louis Gallet, based on the novel by Anatole France, Massenet found his major inspiration in the beauty of the voice, face and figure of the American soprano Sibyl Sanderson. Also possessing these desirable attributes, Erin Wall made a compelling Thaïs. Similar to the Marschallin’s predicament in Der Rosenkavalier Thaïs’s realisation that her beauty will fade primes her for change. Wall sang the “Mirror Aria”, (“Dis-moi que je suis belle”), with great feeling, her luxuriant soprano riding the waves of emotion with the only hint of vocal discomfort discernable on the final high D. She also brought heightened dramatic intensity to the final scene, where Thaïs has a vision of angels welcoming her into heaven and dies in a state of religious ecstasy, deaf to Athanaël’s pleas as he, contrary-wise, succumbs to the erotic powers of Venus. An exciting performer, Wall’s voice seems to have grown, becoming richer and more lustrous, since her performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder with the MSO in 2014.
Jacqueline Porter and Fiona Campbell complemented Wall’s characterisation of a devotee of pleasure as the slaves Crobyle and Myrtale. Always a wonderfully animated presence, Campbell made the laughter music exhilarating and convincing with her immersion in the role. She and Porter made a vocally appealing duo in addition to being strong members of the larger ensembles.
As the sybaritic Nicias, a rich Alexandrian who sells a vineyard, a mill and some lands for a week with Thaïs, Diego Silva used his attractive light tenor to project a sense of refinement coupled with naïve self-indulgence.
Stately and grounded as Albine, abbess of the convent where Thaïs dies, Liane Keegan’s contralto provided contrasting colour and dramatic temperature, while Eva Kong’s bright, flexible soprano negotiated La Charmeuse’s high coloratura aria spiritedly. Two members of the chorus (tenor Jean-François Ravat and bass Maurice Wan) contributed short solos to the opening scene as monks.
Massenet’s music might have fallen out of favour until fairly recently, but this performance would certainly have charmed many into believing that his operas are well worth hearing. Given the (probably coincidental) concert performance of Thaïs in Sydney last month by Opera Australia, Massenet has his supporters in that company. Perhaps we will also have an opportunity to hear a live performance of Esclarmonde in Melbourne before too much longer.
Heather Leviston reviewed the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Thais at the Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, on August 26.