Anatole France’s 1890 novel about the life of the historical Saint Thaïs, proved an irresistible subject to French composer Jules Massenet.
The novel yielded two vividly drawn operatic characters. The first was Thaïs, a courtesan who lived in fifth century Alexandria, Egypt, but who renounced the sins of the world to seek eternal life.
The second character was a monk (in the opera, Athanaël) who had known and renounced Alexandria’s pleasures for the austere life of the monastery.
[Below: the monk Athanaël (Placido Domingo, above) has converted the courtesan Thaïs (Nino Machaidze, below); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Their pathways, in novel and opera, intersect. Athanaël takes on the mission – that becomes an obsession – to convert Thaïs to God. Then, his mission fulfilled, his sensual feelings for her overcome him. Though he would have wished both of them to return together to a life of pleasure, she dies surrounded by her sisters in a convent Athanaël convinced her to join.
Massenet was a master of translating exoticism and sensuality onto the operatic stage. His 1894 musical setting of Anatole France’s work provided the vehicle, 12 decades later, for two masterful singing actors, Placido Domingo (Athanaël) and Nino Machaidze (Thaïs), to plumb the opera’s psychological depths.
Placido Domingo’s Athanaël
Massenet’s opera, from its beginnings, has been associated with glamorous sopranos with the ability to act, always joined by a first rank baritone as Athanaël.
[Below: the monk Athanaël (Placido Domingo, left) has dressed in party garb to be able to talk to Thaïs (Nino Machaidze, right); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
But this series of performances in Europe and Los Angeles has been revived for Placido Domingo, as part of his exploration of a carefully selected group of roles in the baritone range. Los Angeles has been a beneficiary of this truly unprecedented feat.
[See Legend Making at Los Angeles Opera – Placido Domingo, James Conlon Lead Star-Studded “Simon Boccanegra”, February 11, 2012 and Domingo, Meli, Poplavskaya Shine in Strassberger’s Rousing Revival of Verdi’s “Two Foscari” – Los Angeles, September 15, 2012.]
Now in his early 70s, Domingo has shown an extraordinary ability to deliver transcendent performances. His Athanaël not only displayed his stagecraft, that one expects from a veteran actor, but a healthy-sounding voice that has retained both beauty and power.
Most remarkable is Domingo’s ability to sing a sustained legato line with a freshness that one expects in a first rank lyric baritone who might be 40 years younger.
Nino Machaidze’s Thaïs
This is the fourth role sung at the Los Angeles Opera by Nino Machaidze, the lyric coloratura soprano from the Republic of Georgia.
[See my reviews at Vittorio Grigolo, Nino Machaidze Sublime in Ian Judge’s Romantic, Erotic “Romeo et Juliette” – Los Angeles Opera, November 9, 2011 and Partying in L. A.: Machaidze, Gavanelli Romp in All-Star “Turco in Italia” – Los Angeles Opera, February 19, 2011 and Los Angeles Opera’s Magic Potion: Nino Machaidze in “L’Elisir d’Amore” – September 12, 2009.]
[Below: Nino Machaidze as Thaïs; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
A soprano singing Thaïs must be able to project an image as the most alluring symbol of Alexandria’s decadence (Nicias, after all, sells his only remaining property, a vineyard, to be able to purchase her companionship for a week). But she also must be able to convince the audience of her true repentance and conversion by Athanaël.
Machaidze is able to project a vulnerability both in her physical acting and her vocal expressiveness that made her Thaïs theatrically credible. She showed again that she is one of the great lyric sopranos of our present day.
Paul Groves’ Nicias
Lyric tenor Paul Groves, who recently has been expanding his repertory into such fare as the jugendlicher Wagnerian tenor roles, proved effective as Nicias, who continued in the debauched life that Athanaël has abandoned for the monastery.
[Below: Paul Groves is Nicias; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
With some of Massenet’s most engaging music and covered in Johan Engels’ exotic costumes, Groves cut a fanciful figure, a true worshipper of Bacchus, even as his once-upon-a-time companions, first, Athanaël, then Thaïs, seek a different god. [See Master of the Lyric Voice – An Interview with Paul Groves.]
The Mise-en-scène: Nicola Raab and Johan Engels
Production designer Nicola Raab and set and costume designer Johan Engels developed an ingenious multi-part set that allowed efficient movement between the bawdy Alexandrian scenes (that included not only the party spaces but a stage and auditorium with seating so that the party guests could watch a show) and the desert convent in which Thaïs ends her earthly life. The convent that welcomed the repentant Thaïs was an austere sand-colored space.
[Below: Johan Engels’ sets and costumes for an Alexandrine interior; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Raab and Engels employed (at the opera’s beginning) a theatrical device that is often seen in contemporary productions of late 19th century French operas – the use of costumes that represent the fashions of France’s Third Republic – the government of France during the time that Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Delibes, Lalo and Debussy wrote their operas.
[Below: Thaïs (Nino Machaidze, second from right lifting feathered arm coverings) stands behind Nicias (Paul Groves, in gold cloak, left center); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Thus, the opera opens in a monastery in which the monks wear top hats, white gloves and evening wear, and descend a spiral staircase from the upper levels to assemble at a long dining table, to listen to the assessment of Palemon (Valentin Anikin) of what’s worrying Athanaël.
If this introduction of an opera about ancient Alexandria through 1890s men’s fancy dress will seem opaque to many in the audience, soon, however, we are transported into fifth century Egypt with lavish representation of both the meretricious and the ascetic.
[Below: Thaïs (Nino Machaidze, standing, center) has given her life to the convent, an act that Athanaël (Placido Domingo, far right) will come to regret; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Patrick Fournillier’s Conducting
Making his Los Angeles Opera debut was the French conductor Patrick Fournillier, who has become a leading expert on the operas of Massenet and other late 19th century French works.
Already known to Californians through his appearances in San Francisco [See Domingo’s Swashbuckling, Cinematic San Francisco “Cyrano” – November 6, 2010 and Matthew Polenzani Triumphs in Pelly’s Take on “Tales of Hoffmann” – San Francisco Opera, June 5, 2013, he conducted with authority and an obvious relish for the French style.
I enthusiastically recommend this opera to any opera-goer and especially recommend the performances of Placido Domingo and Nino Machaidze in the leading roles.