Nicole Chevalier, Josef Wagner, Roberto Saccà; Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Leo Hussain; dir. Peter Konwitschny (Vienna, 2021)
Unitel DVD: 804908; Blu-ray: 805004 111 mins
In this 2021 Theater an der Wien production of Massenet’s 1894 comédie lyrique, the piece is presented in its 1898 revision – though with fairly substantial cuts: gone is the ballet in Act II and quite a lot of the third act, where lines are also redistributed from the protagonist to the chorus and back, and Athanaël resorts at one point to speech (unthinkable in this through-composed score).
The look of the show is spare, with a curious fascination for adding wings to the characters and chorus from the first scene onwards, where the religious community in the desert all sport black appendages. Director Peter Konwitschny takes liberties with the narrative, too. Thaïs’s small ivory figure of Eros – which Athanaël insists she burn, along with all her other possessions – is here a child actor, whom the obsessed monk shoots with a pistol; later, when Thaïs’s entourage tries to rescue her from him, he once again shoots wildly around to drive them away. Worse is the distasteful scene (again a Konwitschny addition) when Athanaël rapes Thaïs.
The title role makes demands that Nicole Chevalier sometimes struggles with, though she improves following her change of spiritual heart halfway through. Josef Wagner’s Athanaël is on the small side. Roberto Saccà is a wavery Nicias. Conductor Leo Hussein shows a careful attention to Massenet’s careful mood-setting, but as a whole the musical performance is unable to rise above the level of the production.