Massenet: Thaïs

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2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

COMPOSERS: Massenet
LABELS: Arthaus Musik
WORKS: Thaïs
PERFORMER: Barbara Frittoli, Lado Ataneli, Alessandro Liberatore, Maurizio Lo Piccolo, Nade da Serdyuk, Eleonora Buratto, Ketevan Kemoklidze, Daniela Schillaci, Diego Matamoros; Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio Torino/Gianandrea Noseda; dir. Stefano Poda (Turin, 2008)
CATALOGUE NO: 101 385 (DVD 9/NTSC system; PCM stereo; 16:9 picture format)

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Sibyl Sanderson, the Sacramento-born soprano who created the title-role of the saintly sex worker in Massenet’s seductive melodrama, famously shocked le tout Paris when she ‘accidentally’ popped out of her bodice at the work’s 1894 premiere.
 
She’d have to do a lot more than unshroud to shock Turin audiences today, judging by this carnal carnival.
 
Staged at Turin’s state-of-the-art opera house but with all the dramatic conviction of Loincloth Night down at the local sauna, this pretentious display of vapid window-dressing – the icing-sugar sets, semaphoric lighting, slow-motion callisthenics masquerading as choreography and the stand-and-deliver blocking – is the work of one man, Stefano Poda. What’s the Italian for ‘jack of all trades …’, I wonder? 
 
Sadly, the musical side fares no better: while Gianandrea Noseda and his band conjure up the vast desert wastes and chaste asceticism of the Thebaid and the intense agonies and ecstasies of Thaïs’s and Athanaël’s parallel paths to spiritual and sexual passion, he has two planks for principals.
 
Signally lacking any trace of Sanderson’s fabled glamour, Barbara Frittoli also falls far short of her three-octave range: her shapeless, choppy singing sours whenever it should soar and, at its most painful, turns even Thaïs’s prayer to Venus to keep her ‘eternally beautiful’ into an ugly and unappealing screech.
 
Significantly, it’s not the supposed star’s voice that plays across the menu screens but the far more alluring bell-like vocalise of La Charmeuse, a mere bit-part player from the Act II ballet. Mark Pappenheim