Jules Massenet
Theater an der Wien, Vienna

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Josef Wagner (Athanaël) and Nicole Chevalier (Thaïs) Credit: Werner Kmetitsch
Thaïs, Athanaël and chorus Credit: Werner Kmetitsch
Crobyle (Carolina Lippo) and Myrtale (Sofia Vinnik) try to seduce Athanaël (Josef Wagner) watched by Nicias (Roberto Sacca) Credit: Werner Kmetitsch

Good things come to those who wait, people used to tell me. Such passive optimism may not always be justified, but it seems a fair comment on Peter Konwitschny’s rather disappointing production of Massenet’s problematic opera.

The story, such as it is, is set in 4th century Alexandria. The monk Athanaël vows to convert to Christianity Thaïs, the leading courtesan of that city, but, having done so, falls under her sexual spell. It’s more of a philosophical treatise than a blood-and-guts drama, Massenet’s interest in the conflict of human passion and religious fervour being more pressingly represented in operas such as Manon and Werther. Thaïs’s rejection of the wages of sin for the ways of the Lord is perfunctory, while Athanaël remains a cardboard character, a placard on which to write the piece’s simplistic messages.

Konwitschny’s approach in the first half of the piece is to play up the hokum. All the characters have wings, set design is minimal—just a sandy mound with a semi-circular backdrop through which extras make clumsy entrances and exits. He introduces that tiresome cliché of the film cameraman and boom operator to record proceedings, our fallen heroine predictably sniffs a line, and Venus is represented by a lederhosed Cupid with a Mohican hair-do. (Thankfully, Athanaël later shoots the little bugger dead.)

The carnality of Anatole France’s novel on which the opera is based made it a sensation, but was written with an ironic undertone to offset the melodrama. Accordingly, and to reflect the ambiguity at its heart, the supposedly virtuous monks are black-winged, while Thaïs’s lascivious followers mostly bear angelic white. She alone is all feathery flaming crimson.

The static plot, unimaginative staging and the exaggerated costumes of designer Johannes Leiacker mean that the first half fails to come to life. In this context, the famous Meditation violin solo, symbolising Thaïs’s conversion, fails to have an emotional impact, although immaculately if a little rapidly played by Maighread McCrann.

Better follows. The principals awake to find, rather to their surprise, that they have lost their wings. Was what went before something of a dream, one wonders, as in the France novel?

Above all, it’s the music, which hitherto seems uninspired, that then takes wings. Massenet is at his best in the subtlety and delicacy of his orchestration, brought out by British conductor Leo Hussain in the lovely prelude to act 3.

That introduces the best moments of the opera, and some of the composer’s most exquisite writing for the voice. The opera may be one of his most Wagnerian, with long melodic lines that until the finale never quite constitute a coherent, discrete melody in themselves.

Nicole Chevalier is a fine Thaïs, a convincing actress, and is at last given the opportunity to display, unencumbered as it were, her expressive phrasing in C’est l’amour and especially in the touching, despairing act 3 O messager de Dieu. Baritone Josef Wagner, a fiery, imposing and vocally rich and impressive Athanaël until a couple of shaky moments at the end, shares this beautiful epilogue with an emotional Ah! Des gouttes de sang and the magnificent duet that closes the piece.

Roberto Sacca is an ebullient Nicias; Carolina Lippo and Sofia Vinnik are tempting temptresses. The quality of the DVD's visual reproduction is rather poor. The Blu-Ray version may be better.

Reviewer: Colin Davison

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