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Monday, January 12th, 2009

Time Event
7:43p
Metropolitan Opera: Thaïs
On Wednesday night the 7th, we drove out to the Marcus Majestic theatre in Waukesha, in order to see and hear a High-definition simulcast of the New York Metropolitan Opera's production of Thaïs, the opera by Jules Massenet, based upon the 1890 novel by Anatole France.

This is the third year for Met movie-theatre simulcasts, and the second year we have had them in Milwaukee. I believe they are in most major cities now, and, if you are interested in opera at all, I recommend them highly.

The digital image and sound are up to movie quality, and the camera work gives you a close-up view of singers, costumes, and sets that could not be equaled even if you actually sat on the edges of the stage like a Restoration gent. The Met is of course a world-class company with all that implies in the way of talent and resources, and you can see and hear it all--or at least most of it. As with any film of a live production, you get to see what the director chooses and not where your eye might wander on stage, but these productions have excellent camera direction as well, even more impressive when you consider it is live.

Thaïs was, in my view, a simply flawless production. As Renee Fleming, who sang the title role, noted in the interviews with her (another plus for the HD productions), the role is well in the middle of her range, and she both sang and acted the part with apparent ease. The role of Athanaël, was ably handled by Thomas Hampson, who has the rugged good looks, flashing eyes, and beautiful baritone voice the part requires. These two were ably supported by tenor Michael Schade as Nicias, bass Alain Vernhes as Palémon, soprano Alyson Cambridge as Crobyle, and mezzo Ginger Costa-Jackson as Myrtale. The orchestra, conducted by Maestro Jesús López-Cobos, was in fine form, and the famous "Meditation" violin solo drew a well-deserved ovation for Concertmaster David Chan.

The story is set in the early Christian era, and begins with Palémon and the other Cenobite* monks await the return of their brother, Athanaël, from the city of Alexandria. He reports that the city is sunken in sin, largely due to the example of the notorious courtesan, Thaïs, who leads the town in decadent behavior. When visions of the dancing woman haunt his dreams, Athanaël vows that he will return to Alexandria and "save" Thaïs by converting her to Christianity.

From the beginning, it's pretty obvious that Athanaël's motivations are totally self centered, although he himself is blind to it. He is obsessed both with the beautiful courtesan and with the potential glory of his success in bringing such a notorious sinner to Christ. He ignores his mentor's warnings about the dangers of pride and meddling in "worldly" matters, and sets off.

The great irony is that he succeeds in his quest, and then regrets it: he catches Thaïs at a vulnerable moment of self-doubt and worry about the future, and persuades her to give up her life and let him take her to a convent in the desert, although he warns that she will have to endure "mortification of the flesh, . . .suffering, and acts of penance," before becoming a bride of Christ and entering upon life everlasting. Before they leave the city, he commands her to set fire to her house and all her belongings. She complies, and they leave.
The convent sisters receive Thaïs, who has undergone great privations in traveling through the desert, gladly, and Athanaël has his first qualms when he realizes that, according to the rules they now both live by, he should never see her again.

He returns to the Cenobites but finds that a strict regimen of fasting and scourging will not drive away thoughts of Thaïs, and he realizes that he loves her. He has another vision of her which tells him that "a saint is dying." He rushes to her side, only to find that Thaïs is indeed at death's door. She cannot comprehend his pleas for her to stay with him, and sings of her ecstatic vision of the gates of Heaven opening for her. She dies, leaving Athanaël disconsolate and devastated.

The production had the values that one would expect for the Met, with handsome and very cleverly designed sets and attractive costumes, which evoked a period more 19th century than 4th century, with a sense of Belle Epoque Orientalism. Nicias' and Thaïs' costumes, hers especially designed for Ms. Fleming by Christian Lacroix, are almost Parisian, whereas most of the rest of the characters are Eastern in flavor. I had never seen or heard this opera before, and was delighted to have had this opportunity to enjoy it. The intermission interviews add to the interest, as do backstage views that the regular audience would not see.

* No, not guys in black leather with lots of extreme piercings, although that was my first thought as well: it turns out that Clive Barker adopted the name of his demon-possessed sado-masochists from early Christians, due to the tendency of early monastics to go in for "mortification of the flesh", as in fasting, wearing hair shirts, and self-flagellation, which are referred to but occur off stage in the opera. In fact, the term Cenobitic merely refers to monastics who live together communally, as opposed to the earlier Eremitic (hermit) solitary lifestyle.




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