PERFORMER: Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson, Giuseppe Sabbatini, Marie Devellereau, Isabelle Cals; Bordeaux Opera Chorus, Bordeaux Aquitaine National Orchestra/Yves Abel
CATALOGUE NO: 466 766-2
Despite the staggering success of Massenet’s sensational opera of sex and piety when it opened in Paris in 1894 – there were almost 700 performances at the Palais Garnier before it fell from the repertoire – it has never, till now, fared well on disc. The earliest recordings, from 1959 and 1962, have been deleted. And the only existing one, with Beverly Sills and Sherrill Milnes, is both flawed and miscast. Sills’s voice is too neat and bright to convey the sensuality or mystery of the whore Thaïs, who trades sin for sainthood. And though there’s no doubting the dullness of Milnes’s character, the priggish monk Athanaël, he doesn’t strike you as a man to be undone by lust.
Thaïs might have seemed an exotic rarity, but this superb recording makes a real case for it as music drama. The conductor Yves Abel reveals it as a glorious febrile work rich in passion, opulence, glittering detail (right down to judicious use of a wind machine) and fin-de-siècle decadence – a score that is much more adventurous than the famously schmaltzy ‘Méditation’ suggests.
You could scarcely hope for better principals. Renée Fleming produces a gorgeous, voluptuous sound, and her ability to float notes is utterly beguiling, never more so than in her showpiece aria ‘Dis-moi que je suis belle’. Thomas Hampson is a noble and ardent Athanaël; and Giuseppe Sabbatini a seductive, sweet-voiced Nicias. And among the minor roles, Marie Devellereau and Isabelle Cals stand out as the slavegirls Crobyle and Myrtale, with their other-worldly flirtatious fluttery utterances.