Massenet: Thais

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Massenet
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Thais
PERFORMER: Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson, Michael Schade, Alain Vernhes, Alyson Cambridge, Ginger Costa-Jackson, Trevor Scheunemann, Leah Partridge, Maria Zifchak; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus & Ballet/Jesús López-Cobos; dir. John Cox (New York, 2008)
CATALOGUE NO: 074 3355 (NTSC system; dts 5.1; 16:9 picture format)

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Thaïs is based on Anatole France’s sardonic tale of a fourth-century monk who ‘saves’ a notorious Alexandrian courtesan, so brutally that he destroys her life and his faith in the process.

Massenet and his librettist toned down France’s anti-clerical satire to more romantic tragedy, with music rich in silky Orientalism; Jesús López-Cobos happily doesn’t make the famous Meditation too syrupy. John Cox updates this Met staging to Edwardian Alexandria, full of campy Eastern promise, which suits the swooning silent-film atmosphere.

Indeed, Thaïs was among the earliest operas filmed, a 1917 silent (!) with Scottish soprano Mary Garden, herself no mean femme fatale. The title role demands just such a sultry cinematic vamp – Theda Bara, say, or Pola Negri. As in her recording on disc, Renée Fleming is vocally splendid, positively caressing Massenet’s ornate vocal line with luscious ease. Visually, though, she’s unbelievable, a fresh-faced Hollywood blonde with grande dame manners, not a ‘serpent of old Nile’.

Thomas Hampson is an appropriately grim Athanael, boiling with sublimated lust, even if his baritone is now rather dry for this resonant role. His pleasantly decadent friend Nicias is well sung by Michael Schade, and the lesser roles effective, though some need to improve their French.

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Fleming still outclasses DVD rivals Eva Mei and Barbara Frittoli (a notably dull production), so despite the irritatingly hyperactive TV presentation, this is the most recommendable performance. Michael Scott Rohan