20 December 2008: Massenet, Thaïs

12 Noon. Metropolitan Opera, New York. Live simulcast in HD, seen at Showcase Cinemas, West Springfield, Massachusetts. Renée Fleming as Thaïs, Thomas Hampson as Athanaël, Michael Schade as Nicias. Conductor, Jesús López-Cobos. Production by John Cox. 3-1/2 hours

The host for the televised broadcast, Placido Domingo, explained that Thaïs is performed only relatively rarely because the soprano role is so demand­ing. First you look to see if such a singer is available; then you schedule a prod­uction.

Renée Fleming evidently is such a singer. She has a voice full of variety, from grandeur to sinewy sweetness, a phenomenal range, and sounds that were almost never heard emitted from the same source. Her physical and theatrical pres­ence is nearly stunning — she is just plain gorgeous, and just right for this remarkable role of a character who foregoes her fleshly inclinations in favor of conversion to godliness — ironically, while the monk who has converted her, Athenaël, falls in love with her and becomes spiritually lost.

Thus the story of the opera, from a novel by Anatole France (1890), with a highly singable libretto by Lewis Gallet. (The opera was first performed in 1894.) This new Met production is sumptuously mounted, and Fleming had no fewer than six costumes, by Le Croix. The broadcast took us backstage during intermis­sions for close-up views of these costumes, as well as for fascinating following of sets being struck and other sets being erected in their place. Thomas Hampson’s costumes did not depart very much from the somber color of his archetypal monk’s brown — but Hampson is such a superb singer that it did not matter. Finally, the Met just really knows how to do grand opera. And in HD on a huge cinema screen, this production was enthralling and just plain thrilling.

In the interval between Acts II and III, the co-concertmaster of the Met pit orchestra, David Chan, played the famous “Meditation” with a pure, resonant lyric beauty that brought roars of approval from the Met audience and from our own assembly in West Springfield. He was given the first bow at the final curtain call, and his fellow orchestral players were on their feet in the pit, applauding him heartily.

We will certainly subscribe to the rest of the operas we can attend this season.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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