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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Opera Review: The Serenity Now

The Manhattan School of Music mounts Thaïs.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Spiritual seeker: Rebecca Krynski sings the title role of Thaïs at MSM.
Photo by Jeffrey Langford © 2012 Manhattan School of Music.
Jules Massenet's Thaïs is a strange girl.  In telling the story of an ascetic monk's disastrous obsession with the title character, a famous (fictional) prostitute in 4th century Egypt, the composer was striving to show the clash between pagan belief and the Christian world. What he got was an uneasy alliance between the soul-searching of Wagner's Tannhäuser and the heartbreak of Verdi's La Traviata.

In other words, when the goddess of love met early evangelism, there were no winners.

Happily, this production at the Manhattan School of Music (seen Friday night with the second cast) overcame the composer's florid mix of (Verdian) pathos and (Wagnerian) piety to create sympathetic, believable portraits of these outsized characters. The singers were couched within a simple, pleasing production (designed by André Barbe and originally seen at the Opera de Montréal) that used a contrast of bright colors (the lighting is by Guy Simard) and costumes (also by Mr. Barbé, from the Opera of St. Louis) to create an attractive show that evoked Massenet's Egypt with minimal means.

The severe vocal challenges written into the title role are one factor that keeps Thaïs off the world's stages. Soprano Rebecca Krynski made a convincing case for herself in the part, tracing the courtesan's path from bordello to cloister with a powerhouse performance that anchored the whole show. Elegant and teasing in the first act, Ms. Krynski managed to make Thaïs' lightning-quick conversion in Act II into a believable theatrical coup.


Ms. Krynski saved her most powerful singing (and some beautifully floated top notes) for the demanding finale, as Thaïs rises to a vision of heaven brought on by solitary confinement in the convent. Mr. Doucet created an Aida-like split-screen effect by means of a simple stage lift. Better yet, the soprano rode the orchestra to a fitting apotheosis in the final duet, her voice ascending to heaven along with her character.

As Athanaël, Jason Cox started gruffly, only to expand into more lyric passages in the later acts. The baritone showed his true colors in the big Act II duet with Thaïs and the confrontation with the angry citizens of Alexandria that followed. The desert scene, where Athanaël forces his new recruit to mortify her body by walking all the way to the convent (nice guy, huh?) was sung with convincing fervor. The singer was beginning to show the strain in the storm scene as Athanaël realizes he really loves Thais. In the finale Mr. Cox was able to move the audience with convincing acting as the monk is overcome by his own sexual repression.

As Niceas (Athanaël's old friend and Thaïs' most loyal customer) tenor Aaron Short had one of the more pleasing voices in this production, but ran out of high notes in the climax of Act II. His two houris (played by Allison Nicholas and Elsa Quéron) sang beautifully and turned up the heat early, thanks to Mr. Doucet's choreography. Bass Brett Vogel was a firm Palémon, the monks' spiritual leader.  La Charmeuse  (Chae Sun Kim) made her brief Act II appearance a memorable one with her high-flying soprano solo delivered from behind a veil.

Ironically, the best known number from this show is an instrumental: the Act II Meditation. Played by the principal violinist, this intermezzo filled the air of Borden Auditorium with its simple, pensive melody. In this brief passage, conductor George Manahan managed to bring across a sense of spiritual contentment and reflection, the most valuable qualities of Massenet's peculiar opera.
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.