Friday, March 11, 2011

A serious production of Thaïs - readers uninterested in opera can skim right past this one - readers interested in opera, apply your best judgment

The entry on Thaïs, the 1894 Jules Massenet opera, in The New Grove Book of Operas (2000), ends with this:

The human truths contained in Thaïs have yet to be revealed either on stage or indeed on record; it is, in many ways, an opera still awaiting its first serious production.

I presume the entry has been revised since then.  I have seen a serious production of Thaïs, and am listening to it now.  Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson recorded the opera in 2000 with a regional French orchestra.  I saw the production in Chicago in 2002 or 2003.  Hampson I saw several times in Chicago, but I believe this was the only time I have heard Fleming perform.

I would not want to put too much pressure on my memory of any opera I have seen, particularly one I had never heard.  I asked ma femme what she remembered, and she immediately said “the set” - a bright version of the Alexandria and the Egyptian desert, yellow, white, and blue (about two-thirds down, there it is) – “and not much else.”

How do I know it was a serious performance, then?  Back to the New Grove.  In the 1894 premiere, the star "'accidentally' exposed her breasts," and a 1973 performance featured "the first full-frontally nude opera singer."  Fleming remained clothed for her entire appearance.  If anything, the production was too static, except that the attention was then firmly on the interpretation of the music.  Really, I know the performers understand what they are singing, are “serious,” because I can hear what they’re doing on the recording.

I wrote and have abandoned a little exploration of the musical themes of the opera.  The only point worth keeping is that Massenet is clearly composing in a Wagnerian world.  Motifs run through the entire piece, performing the same thematic functions of a repeated color or phrase in a novel, except I can hum the motifs.  I am not a particularly sophisticated listener – after multiple plays of the recording, I have been able to pick out five themes.  I doubt that’s all of them.  The one the brass section plays at the beginning of the monk’s “Voilà donc la terrible cité” aria is blatantly ripped off of Tannhäuser (1845).  I think it’s Tannhäuser.

All of the motifs are blended together in the “Méditation religieuse,” a six-minute instrumental section in the exact center of the opera.  Thaïs has just been “converted” by the monk, has just decided to abandon her earthly life and return to the Christian church.  In France’s novel, this is a moment of catastrophic “victory” for the monk.  Massenet abandons the monk, and gives his attention to Thaïs, to her psychological state, which is quiet but ecstatic, and entirely wordless, aside from some off-stage humming.  France’s anti-clerical satire is entirely abandoned by Massenet.  In some sense, this eviscerates the novel.  All for the best.

I understand that the “Méditation religieuse” is popular at weddings.  It’s the moment when a courtesan resolves to become a nun, and a monk begins a life of erotic torment.  Ha ha ha!  But no one at the wedding will know that.

The Fleming and Hampson recording is highly recommended, although I wish there were a CD of highlights.


  1. Hi A.R.

    I must say that your blog is absolutely fascinating.

    Do you think that if it was the 1920’s and you lived in Paris that you would be a regular at Shakespeare & Co. having conversations with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound? Reading this blog makes me feel like Hemingway. Oh, and what I’d give to converse with Anais Nin. I hope someday you delve into female subjectivism.


    P.S. I would say that I love opera but 90% of the operas I have attended have been by Verdi and Puccini. I may actually be just a fan of these two composers.

  2. If I had lived in 1920s Paris, I would have had to watch my step. I can't hold my booze like those guys could.

    Verdi and Puccini wrote 90% of the best operas, so I understand what you're saying. I'm exaggerating, but those two composers contributed far more than their share.