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Monday, November 13, 2017

Opera Review: Lust in the Dust

The Met spends its money on Thaïs.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Unholy: mad monk Athanaël (Gerald Finley, right) obsesses over the tide character (Aileen Pérez) in Thaïs. 
Photo by Chris Lee © 2017 The Metropolitan Opera.
Jules Massenet's Thaïs is the operatic equivalent of a rare orchid, an exotically colored, carefully cultivated hothouse plant that is brought out only when an opera company believes it has the right soprano for the difficult title part. On Saturday afternoon, the Metropolitan Opera gave the first performance of this season's revival. Here, the stars were soprano Ailyn Pérez stepping into the leading lady's gilded sandals, and baritone of the moment Gerald Finley singing Athanaël, the troubled monk whose cilice may be on a little too tight.

In writing Thaïs, Massenet assembled a rich confection of lush melodies with just a dash of Oriental spice. Attempting to evoke the mysterious Orient (the story is set in fourth-century Egypt) he opted for delicate woodwind writing and tinkling, occasionally irritating percussion. (Richard Strauss would do this sort of thing a few years later in Salome to much better effect.) The Met's production dates from 2008. It is by John Cox and is a perfect example of the creative cul de sac that the company was in a decade ago. There are bright primary colors, classical and Arabesque architecture, guards wearing fezzes and carrying (equally anachronistic) rifles. Athanaël's religious order hangs out near a broken Roman monument, a face in the sand left over from Les Troyens, enjoying the desert heat in their black robes. (No wonder they're suffering.)

Much credit for the success of Saturday's performance goes to conductor Emmanuel Villaume. His command of the superb Met orchestra brought color and warmth to the show, providing the exotic detail that Massenet added with such painstaking care. Concertmaster David Chan played the Act II 'Meditation' (the most famous excerpt of this score) from the pit with warmth and glorious tone. He was given a well-deserved solo bow on the stage at the opera's end. (And yes, it is telling as to  the quality of this drama that the most beloved number from Thaïs is an instrumental!)

The problem with Thaïs is not the music but its libretto, a tale of redemption and religiosity that has not aged well. Y'see, Thaïs is based on a French novel of the same title, about a self-righteous holy man who steers an Egyptian prostitute toward eventual sainthood. It should be noted that the book was a satire, meant to expose the hypocrisy of religion. For the libretto, the work was rewritten to be serious. The result is an unsatisfying religious drama which plays like an awkward collision between La traviata and Tannhäuser.

Ms. Pérez made a strong first effort in the challenging title role. Resplendent in a ridiculous shade of shocking pink, she was clearly on edge in the early scenes: not the best approach for a temptress. She reached all the way up for the big note at the end of "Dis-Moi Que Je Suis Belle," making a brief scrape at the elusive high D in the last bar. Ms. Perez improved in the later acts of this slow-moving show, drawing out the depths of her character in the big confrontation with  Athanaël and realistically depicting Thaïs' improbable turn to piety. Her performance culminated in a desert apotheosis in the work's final scene, what is effectively the third of the opera's three endings.

As Athanaël, Gerald Finley gave a rich and nuanced performance of Athanaël, who (for the first half of the opera) is essentially a stick in the Nile mud. He is a classic hypocrite, the judgmental man of God who cannot follow the spiritual path that he is trying to walk and eventually forces Thaïs to follow. Mr. Finley is a fine actor with a strong voice. As the character finally found compassion for his prostitute-turned-acolyte, warmth bloomed in his instrument. His performance embodied the conflict burning within the monk, even as the dim lighting in the last act made it almost impossible to make out his facial expressions.

The tenor part in this show is a minor one. Nicias is Athanaël's best friend and Thaïs' best client. He was sung by the bluff tenor Jean-François Borras, who one wishes to hear more from in the future. The same applies to veteran bass David Pittsinger, the British bass who is making more regular appearances on the Met roster these days. He played Palémon, the head of Athanael's order. On the less spiritual side ofThe role of La Charmeuse was split between a willowy dancer and the soprano Deanna Breiwick. The latter's impressive, stratospheric soprano proved to be a pleasing discovery. Soprano France Bellemare and mezzo Megan Marino appeared as Crobyle and Myrtale, two lovelies who support Thaïs. Their little duet in Act Two was a genuine delight.

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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.