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Thais

The Metropolitan Opera's cheesy-looking production of Massenet's opera still works as a vehicle for star Renee Fleming.

By New York City
Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson in Thais
(© Ken Howard)
Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson in Thais
(© Ken Howard)
The Egyptian desert serving as ascetic home to the priests and nuns in Jules Massenet's 1894 opera Thais, adapted from Anatole France's satirical novel, can be taken as a metaphor for the dry stretches found not only in much of the composer's writing, but also in John Cox's Metropolitan Opera production. There simply isn't a lot to look at: some dunes, a palm tree or three (the palms are gilded as if supposedly prospering in the Alexandria locale) and a couple of staircases for star Renee Fleming to descend in sumptuous Christian Lacroix costumes.

This slightly cheesy-looking 2002 undertaking has been borrowed from the Lyric Opera Chicago as a Fleming showcase, and patrons who toughed out the opening performance got enough of the soprano singing with golden radiance to justify their time and trouble. Fleming, who acted the role quite well, had no trouble getting to the gorgeous final high D of the work's most famous aria, "Dis-moi que je suis belle." The desperation Fleming conveyed while singing and pacing the stage as a courtesan fearing the deterioration of her beauty is a testament to the diva's continuing diva-hood. Her Thais is a woman who needs her mirror so violently that she hugs it.

The opera's two-handed scenes between sybaritic Thais and Cenobite monk Athanael (Thomas Hampson) show Massenet at his darkly melodious -- but in no way satirical -- best. Athanael has made it his mission to convert Thais to Christianity and thereby save her tarnished soul, and the several lengthy exchanges during which he accomplishes his task -- but eventually regrets his disdain for pleasures of the flesh -- are subtle, yet passionate.

While the orchestra thrums, Fleming gets the passion, as does Hampson, whose singing is less than its most striking and shows signs of a weakening vibrato. The final scene -- when Thais is about to go to the God whom she's discovered but Athanael realizes he desires Thais' body as much as her spiritual well-being -- contains Massenet's choicest composing, and its conflicting anxiety and serenity is conducted exquisitely by Jesus Lopez-Cobos. The other musical peak is the "Meditation" played between acts two and three, here done by David Chan, who will have listeners thinking of him as comparable to the most supreme violin soloists.

Much of Massenet's score may not necessarily be as dry as desert sand, but it does occasionally contain the music equivalent of some of those eventually boring Saharan vistas. The happenstance doesn't help the effectiveness of Michael Schade, who plays Thais' erstwhile fiance in a martinet's mustache, Alain Vernhes as head Cenobite monk Palemon, or the relatively small choral ensembles. Moreover, Cox's direction only complicates matters when more than Fleming and Hampson are populating the sometimes cramped and awkward sets. Nonetheless, the opera ultimately remains a soprano's vehicle that Fleming rides with glory.


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