John Cox's "new" production of Jules Massenet's opera Thais opens tonight at The Met! As so many bloggers have stated before me, it stars Renee Fleming, Thomas Hampson, and Michael Schade.
This is not new territory for Fleming, however, as anyone who follows her career will know. Massenet is one of her favorite composers as she has stated in Opera News magazine during the Met's production of Manon in 2005-06. She and Hampson recorded Thais in 1997-98, and, according to Opera News' David Shengold in this month's issue, it is one of the best recordings currently available. Nevertheless, it does have its fair share of criticism. Shengold writes,
"...For Decca, Yves Abel judges this and other purely instrumental passages correctly; plus, his orchestra boasts the freshest sound; on the other hand, the older French recordings, particularly Albert Wolff's, bestow a kind of tonal patina on the orchestral work that suits the piece very well. But Abel's reading never flags or lets the listener down. From her first entrance, Fleming produces the sensual, often radiant sound that has become her trademark. Just as characteristic of her recent work is an indirect approach to line, heavy on swoopy portamentos. Textual detail is meticulously considered, if sometimes overemphatic. (Hampson's French diction, by contrast, emerges unmannered.) Fleming's high notes and trills are most impressive. One less pleasing aspect of Decca's recording is that she sounds, even in duet, as if she were in a different acoustic from Giuseppe Sabbatini (the fine Nicias) and Hampson's stylish, handsome-toned if sometimes audibly hardworking monk. (Reliable insider reports allege that — in jet-age fashion — the two leads were recorded separately in widely spaced studio sessions held more than a year apart.) Assured and impressive as the protagonists are, one hopes that when they are onstage together at the Met a few more sparks will fly. ..."
His article, which was highly educational, compared the various audio recordings of the past century, and I am happy to see that this was one of the better reviews given.
Fleming herself says of this gem of her repertoire in an interview with Matt Dobkin for The Metropolitan Opera,
"You're known as one of the great interpreters of Thaïs. What draws you to this character?
Thaïs is one of the iconic roles in the entire soprano literature and the most musically glamorous role I sing. This opera uses every single vocal mechanism in the entire soprano lexicon, from full-bodied lyricism to high pianissimo singing... Every three pages there's some effect that sounds terrifying and risky and difficult–and it is–but it's worthwhile, and the role fits me in terms of vocal weight and tessitura. The best roles are the ones that are interesting and challenging dramatically as well. Thaïs is one of perhaps four roles in my entire repertoire that could have been written for me.
What makes it such a good fit?
It's the tessitura. Thaïs is high-flying, but the general tessitura is very much middle-voice. That's the key for me. The Massenet roles really want a full lyric voice in addition to lighter qualities. Anything heavier, for me, weighs the voice too much, which is also very much dependant on the orchestration.
Thaïs is not just a vocal showpiece. From an acting standpoint, it's an interesting psychological study as well.
She is such a modern figure. One of the things that's important to understand is that the word "courtesan," particularly in the time that Massenet was writing, had completely different–and much more positive–connotations than it does today, more kept woman than prostitute. There's a fantastic book by Joanna Richardson called The Courtesans: The Demi-monde in 19th Century France. It's a profile of all of the top courtesans of that time, and what you realize is each of these women, if they were lucky and financially savvy and healthy, then they had fascinating lives. They were completely independent, unlike married women, and could surround themselves with the greatest artists and minds of the day. Thaïs is also a great actress and performer, a star, which is precisely why Athanaël wants to convert her. So she is a wonderful character to play both in her outward confidence and in the way she uses her seductive gifts to rule her world. But she is also incredibly lonely. She sees very much in her future that once her beauty fades, she will have no value anymore in society, and she's desperately looking for more. That quest for a spiritual life beyond passing physical beauty relates to us today–it has related to people in all times. ..." (for the rest of the interview visit www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/news/interviews/detail.aspx?id=6068 )
I think that this will be a performance to remember for years to come. It might even be one of those that I shall tell envious younger generations of when I am older that they shall marvel at what an incredible defining interpretations of the various roles within the opera.
For those of us who are not lucky enough to be at The Met tonight or any time during the run, this production will be streamed live over The Met's website via Real Player tonight at 8 pm eastern time for free and broadcast over the radio and into movie theaters in HD on December 20th, 2008. Happy listening and viewing to all! By the way, if anyone sees the performances, feel free to pst a review of it on my comments!