Erin Wall, Joshua Hopkins, Andrew Staples (voices); Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Davis
Chandos CHSA 5258 132:08 mins (2 discs)
Whatever his colleague Vincent d’Indy meant when he described one of Massenet’s musical characteristics to be ‘a discreet and semi-religious eroticism’, such a trait finds its apogee in Thaïs (1894), which tells the ironic tale of a fanatical monk converting a courtesan only to lose his own faith in the process.
Much of the opera is interior, as we look deep inside the two main characters who pass each other on their opposing spiritual trajectories.
To Thaïs herself Erin Wall brings a clean, pliant soprano used with discretion and judgement, following Massenet’s markings carefully as she charts her character’s emotionally charged vocal journey.
Dark of presence, Joshua Hopkins makes a vehement Athanaël, riven by an inner conflict that causes him to destroy the object of his love and then despairingly to recognise his own faith as a lie.
Andrew Staples’s graceful tenor represents the standpoint of the hedonistic Nicias, while Nathan Berg is imposing as Palémon, the wise leader of Athanaël’s ascetic community.
Andrew Davis presents a perceptive account of one of Massenet’s best creations, the Canadian orchestra offering fine-textured playing as they respond with assurance to the composer’s unerring gift for scene painting.
Like all previous recordings the Chandos set gives us the second (1898) version of the 1894 score while including just one of the seven ballet movements added to the revision of the second act; yet it surpasses many earlier efforts not only in terms of casting and conducting, but also in taking one of Massenet’s finest scores seriously.