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Friday, November 3, 2017

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Thaïs

The most famous French opera with an umlaut in the title.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
You're nobody in Alexandria unless you live in a house with a really big door.
Photo from the Met's last production of Thats by Ken Howard, courtesy the Metropolitan Opera.
The Met revives Massenet's most sensuous opera as a vehicle for soprano Ailyn Pérez and stud baritone Gerald Finley. Thaïs is a lush example of Massenet using an exotic setting to tell a fairly prosaic story of love and obsession. The twist is that the "bad girl" courtesan finds true redemption while the religious, sex-obsessed monk goes down in flames.

What is Thaïs?
It is 1894 opera by Jules Massenet, who is regarded as one of the last masters of the traditional French style before Debussy changed music in that country (and elsewhere) forever. It came among his string of hits (ManonDon QuichotteEsclarmonde) that made him the leading French composer at the turn of the 20th century.

What's Thaïs about?
Thaïs (pronounced "tie-eess" with the accent on the second syllable) is a bit of an old-fashioned story, the sad tale of a sensual, professional woman (in the grand tradition of Manon and e La Traviata). The title character is a priestess of Venus who conducts her profession in medieval Alexandria. Thats converts and finds Christian faith, and about the moral and ethical downward spiral of Athanaël, the holy man who becomes obsessed with her. It is an intimate drama and heart-rending with the right voices.

What's the music like?
The score of Thats uses lush orchestration and orientalisms (that is pentatonic scales and minor keys) to evoke life on another continent.  Ironically, the best known piece from it is an instrumental: the "Meditation" with its extensive violin solo. The "Meditation" is sometimes heard as a solo showpiece for violin and orchestra.

Who's in it?
Ailyn Pérez and Gerald Finley are both fine singers, and should generate some real desert heat in this long-overdue  revival. Jean François Borras plays the smaller role of Nicïas, Thaïs' best and most loyal customer.

How's the production?
This is a production that the Met only mounted to please star soprano Renée Fleming. You can expect exotic, appropriately sensual PG visuals for an opera set in the exotic land of Egypt. A lot of browns and blues.

Why should I see it?
Because the leads are absolute gold and ideally suited to this difficult though melodious work. And everybody loves the "Meditation."

When does it open?
Thaïs opens her doors for business on Nov. 11. Note that the first performance is a 1pm matinee.

Where can I get tickets?
Tickets  are available through MetOpera.Org or by calling the box office at (212) 362-6000. You can save service fees by going to the box office in person at the Met itself, located at 30 Lincoln Center Plaza. Hours: Monday to Saturday: 10am-8pm, Sunday: 12pm-6pm.

Is there a Live in HD broadcast planned?
No. More's the pity, this is a good cast.

Recording Recommendations:
Thaïs is not recorded often. However, there are versions available with three famous star sopranos in the title role: Anna Moffo, Beverly Sills and of course, Renée Fleming. The Sills recording (Warner Brothers classics) has the best cast and conductor in opera veteran Lorin Maazel. 

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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.