Saturday 30 May 2020

Thaïs: Massenet's lyric drama gets a rare outing on disc in a stylish performance with Canadian forces conducted by Sir Andrew Davis

Massenet Thaïs; Erin Wall, Joshua Hopkins, Andrew Staples, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis; Chandos
Massenet Thaïs; Erin Wall, Joshua Hopkins, Andrew Staples, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis; Chandos

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 May 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A fine new recording of Massenet's lyric drama with Canadian forces which brings out the work's character and style

Seeing Massenet's Thaïs at the Royal Northern College of Music in the 1970s was the first time that I really fell in love with opera. Thaïs wasn't my first opera, but it was my first exposure to the glamour of 19th century romantic opera and the seductive nature of such performances, even if the critics were a bit sniffy at the college for selecting Thaïs (as opposed to 'proper' Massenet operas like Manon or Werther). It had a good cast too, with Glenville Hargreaves, Mary Thomas and Robin Leggate (plus one Diana Montague as Myrtale). After this first exposure, it was a long, long time before I saw the opera again and the only time I have seen it staged was when Grange Park Opera did it 2006, directed by David Fielding with Anne-Sophie Duprels, Ashley Holland and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts.

Now, I have a confession, I have always preferred Thaïs to Manon, perhaps because I have always preferred Thaïs, as a character to Manon. Whereas I find the character of Manon profoundly annoying (and have little patience with Des Grieux either), I have no trouble with Thaïs and Athanaël even though critics often have problems with the rather schematic nature of Thaïs; the man of God going bad and the good-time girl going good, on separate but intersecting paths. That also hints at one of the problems with the opera, whilst the role of Thaïs is the name part and is written for a diva (the first Thaïs was Massenet's then muse the American soprano Sybil Sanderson), the role of Athanaël is profoundly important and just as long as, and as significant as, the title role. So to make it work you need a star soprano who can do both sexy and religious, and a charismatic lyric baritone. Not much then.

Not surprisingly, many of the opera's outings have been in concert performances (London has seen it as such at the Royal Opera and from Chelsea Opera Group). This new recording of Massenet's Thaïs on Chandos is based on concert performances with a distinct Canadian slant given by Sir Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, with Erin Wall as Thaïs and Joshua Hopkins as Athanaël (both Canadian), plus Andrew Staples as Nicias, and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

Sybil Sanderson as Thaïs
Sybil Sanderson as Thaïs
The problem with Thaïs in the theatre is that it explores the conflict between self-denying asceticism and worldly pleasure, something that was a lot easier to do in the novel by Anatole France (1844-1924) on which the opera is based. The opera's genesis is similarly schizophrenic. Massenet was writing it for the American soprano Sybil Sanderson (1864-1903) [Her obituary in the 1903 New York Times]. She had had great success at the Paris Opera with Esclarmonde (in 1889) and by 1894 was singing Manon at the Opera Comique. The intention was the Thaïs should be relatively small scale. Massenet's fortunes in Paris at the time were somewhat mixed, he had failed to get Werther on (it was premiered in Vienna in 1892), and his grand opera La Mage had failed at the Paris Opera in 1891. In fact, he was moving away from pure grand opera in the mould of Le Roi de Lahore (of 1877) to lyric drama.

But, Sybil Sanderson was tempted away from the Opera Comique back to the Paris Opera by a lucrative contract, so Thaïs had to be expanded. Its fortunes after its premiere in 1894 were mixed, but Massenet revised it in 1898 (expanding Act Three with the scene at the Oasis) and changing the arrangements of the ballet movements. The version presented on this disc follows the revised, 1898, version but misses out the ballet altogether except for the short movements which involve singers (Crobyle, Myrtale and the singing dancer La Charmeuse - when I saw it in Manchester, La Charmeuse did indeed sing and dance).

The result is a relatively compact piece which falls easily on two CDs, but it is a shame to miss Massenet's dance music!

The challenges of the piece, the competing attractions of pleasure and asceticism, seem to have appealed to Massenet, and he wrote some marvellous music. Not just the famous 'Meditation' (the work's best known excerpt) or Thaïs' lovely Act II mini-aria 'Dis-moi que je suis belle et que je serai belle éternellement!', but in the music for the Cenobites in the desert in Act I and his orchestral depiction of the luxus of Alexandria.

The first version of Thaïs is rather interesting, with quite a bit of orchestral music which can be labelled dance music but which is rather more sophisticated so that, Act One ends in a poéme symphonique 'L'amours d'Aphrodite' that segues into Act 2. As far as I know, this version of the opera has never been recorded. The idea behind the original Thaïs was in fact a series of 'visions' of the courtesan and Karen Henson has argued in her book Opera Acts: Singers and Performance in the Late Nineteenth Century that Massenet was influenced by the way the first Thaïs, Sybil Sanderson manipulated and projected her visual image.

The title role was specifically designed for Sybil Sanderson. Massenet had first come across her in 1887 when coaching her for the title role in Manon, and he made revisions to the vocal line for her, adding coloratura and raising the tessitura. Sanderson is notable (or notorious) for the extensive photographic record she left include images where were deliberately sexually provocative, and at the premiere the end of Act I climaxed with a Janet Jackson-like 'costume malfunction' that made the performance somewhat notorious.

Erin Wall makes a stylish and poised Thaïs, well able to spin a lovely line and thin the voice elegantly down; she also has a nice line in beautifully floated top notes. The fact that her voice is not quite as luxuriously well-upholstered as some previous incumbents in the role, means that she brings out a stronger sense of character, and balance seductiveness with something more thoughtful. This is emphasised in the music, her initial duet with Nicias (Andrew Staples) is more of a lyric dialogue than a 'number', whilst the famous 'Dis-mois que je suis belle' is tiny, embedded in a solo scene which Wall makes compelling. And there is a quiet intensity of much of her scene with Athanaël in the second half Act Two,  whilst the two bring a powerful intensity to the final scene when the now saintly Thaïs dies in the passionate Athanaël's arms. Terrific stuff, even though it is hokum, and what is fine about this performance is that they take it completely seriously. Massenet did not intend Thaïs to be merely sexy, and from the outset the character is more complex, and Wall brings out these undertones well.

Athanaël is a similarly complex and conflicted character. Whilst Joshua Hopkins impresses with the firmness of his tone and his sense of strength of purpose, he also brings out Athanaël's dogged quality, and building sense of obsession. The libretto makes an important point, underneath his ragged garments and grubby exterior, Athanaël scrubs up well and is rather handsome, and Hopkins manages to catch this dichotomy in his performance. His nicely flexible baritone has an attractively grainy quality, and he is well able to spin long lines sung in expressive French.  Throughout Act Two, Hopkins and Wall bring out the difference in approach between the two characters, and the whole of the first scene of Act III (added by Massenet for the 1898 performance) is very much about the way Athanaël and Thaïs are on very different journeys, and his is towards powerful obsession.

Andrew Staples makes a strong Nicias, singing with a firm swagger though his is rather a more dramatic voice than the flexible lyric I am used to here. But it does mean that Nicias, something of a cypher really, seems rather stronger in character here.

The smaller roles are all well taken, with Nathan Berg as warmly flexible Palémon, the old Cenobite with an important role in the first scene, Liv Redpath and Andrea Ludwig stylish and sexy as Crobyle and Myrtale, the two slaves who pop up a surprising amount in the Alexandrian scenes, plus Emilia Boteva as Albine, the abbess of the convent, and Stacey Tappan as the dancer La Charmeuse.

Having the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir on the recording is a real luxury, as it means that for the opening of the opera, the male chorus of Cenobites has the wonderfully rich, well-upholstered sound of a lot of men (there are over 40 tenors and basses in the choir) singing very quietly, to magical effect. The full choir is heard to fine effect in the middle of the opera, with the women equally impressive as the nuns at the end.

But any Massenet opera of this period is as much about the orchestra as about the singers. For all the apparently luxe, almost decadent style of these pieces, Massenet created sophisticated music; many of the scenes are remarkably complex, and throughout the detail of the orchestration is important. (I remember a BBC Record Review Building a Library on Massenet's Werther when the reviewer insisted that the Wagnerian complexity of the orchestral part meant that the standard, clarity and detail of the orchestral playing were as important as who sang the title role). Here we benefit from a warm orchestral sound, Sir Andrew Davis' attention to detail and his clear feeling for the music. And it is a good-sized orchestra, with triple woodwind, but the performance often does not sound like it, we appreciate the way Davis brings out the stylish sense of detail. Davis is well known for his performances of the operas of Richard Strauss, and here Davis moves to a composer where the sense of melodic lyricism and orchestral detail are as equally important, and he draws fine playing indeed from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

The Cd booklet has a fine article about the background to the opera by Hugh MacDonald, and full text and translations. My only reservation is the cover image, featuring a model with an unfeasibly narrow waist. Surely, in this day and age we are beyond such images of conventional sexism, after all Massenet did not intend Thaïs, and nor is she portrayed as such here.

Listening to this performance of Thaïs is not like relaxing into a warm bath, you need to look at other recordings if you want that. What it gives us is a sophisticated sense of character and a fine feeling for the style and the detail of Massenet's music, with a trio of singers in the lead who make a real ensemble feel to the piece.

Jules Massenet - Thaïs (1894/1898) [131:42]
Erin Wall - Thaïs
Joshua Hopkins - Athanaël
Andrew Staples - Nicias
Palemon - Nathan Berg
Crobyle - Liv Redpath
Myrtale - Andrea Ludwig
La Charmeuse - Stacey Tappan
Albine - Emilia Boteva
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)
Recorded Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Canada, 4-9 November 2019

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