What a let-down for an opera – these days most opera enthusiasts wouldn’t have seen Thaïs or know its plot – but they could all hum the six-minute orchestral “meditation” played during a scene change. Beaut tune, but there's more to the opera than this - both in its messages and in its music.
It’s a pretty uncomplicated plot, and in its time it was highly controversial. Remember Massenet’s confrontation with Church doctrine on suicide, in Werther? Two years later (1894) he’s presenting a story set in Egypt (under the Roman Empire) about a monk falling for a courtesan and devotee of Venus, while attempting to convert her - but finding too late that he’s obsessed with her. It's an opera that required a diva - and of the three who have most famously played the courtesan, recently it belonged to Renée Fleming.
Even without its striptease scene, it would have been firmly set for controversy. It starts with religious eroticism, and ends with the monk repudiating all his vows, returning to his now converted courtesan and telling her religion is an illusion and “nothing is true but life and the love of human beings”.
But this is no triumph for humanism - she describes the heavens opening and the angels welcoming her into their midst as she dies. As Wikipedia sums it up, “while the courtesan's true purity of heart is revealed, so is the religious man's baser nature”.
This is a strongly anti-clerical plot. Having sung of her fading beauty in the famous mirror song, as an irreverent account has it, "Hope will find a way! Thaïs goes Christian (inadvertently corrupting her evangelist), and, as she dies, she sees the heavens open, and the angels and saints all smiling, with hands full of flowers: “Le son des harpes d’or m’enchante! – de suaves perfums me pénètrent! … Je sens—une exquise beatitude” [the sound of golden harps enchants me! Soft perfumes penetrate me. I sense an exquisite beatitude!]. Here she gets her eternal beauty, here, the luxury to which she, as Alexandria’s priciest harlot, had become accustomed, but now perfected, with no fear of loss. She has not abandoned her material desires, her delight in pleasures of the body, but has rather had them perfected by the greatest client of all."
And yes, the Meditation does recur in the final scene - here it is with Fleming and Hampson.
Massenet didn’t make it up - Thaïs was a highly anti-clerical novel by Anatole France, which was hot off the press, published in 1890. And the music is much more than the famous Meditation.
"Massenet’s work is characterised by a mixture of sensuality and Sulpician religiosity that underscores a dramatic structure based on opposites: the city and the desert, eroticism and saintliness, seduction and renunciation. These contrasts are achieved through different musical processes, like the unusual confrontation between the soprano, Thaïs, and the baritone, Athanaël, that is unique in the composer’s creations. The essential orchestral pages ensure the cohesion of each act by suggesting dreams, meditations or atmospheres. The symphonist’s art reaches its culmination in Thaïs, where Massenet excels at rendering life in a desert monastery or the sumptuousness of a festival in Alexandria with Oriental shadings."
Our production is the Met Opera’s 2008 staging with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson, who had made the lead roles their own since 2000. There’s a splendid account of their rendering of the roles in an earlier recording reviewed by Gramophone here. Our 2008 Met production was triumphant - read about it here.
“With sensitive interpreters, which this performance, conducted with beautiful restraint by Jesús López-Cobos, certainly had, Thaïs emerges as an opera with passages of great elegance and subtlety. Massenet’s melodic gift is in full furl. He spins an intricate web of interconnected motifs associated with characters and situations." Read the detailed NYTimes review here. Tommasini, the reviewer, is rarely so glowing, and the glow is particularly about Renée Fleming. “But let’s face it. Thaïs is a diva spectacle, and Ms. Fleming plays it to the hilt… Ms. Fleming, who has always made deliberate decisions about repertory, has said that the role of Thaïs could have been written for her. Her performance proves her point. Though filled with lyrical flights to the upper register and some florid singing, which she handled beautifully, the vocal lines mostly hover in the soprano’s midrange, where Ms. Fleming’s sound is especially rich, sensual and strong.”
So we finish the year with another amazing singer of our times: all hail Renée Fleming! Now 60, officially farewelled, and moving to other roles, she triumphed in the romantic soprano roles, as we’ve seen this year - in Rusalka and now Thaïs.