Arts & Events

Los Angeles Opera Presents Plácido Domingo in a Spectacular Performance of Massenet’s THAIS

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday May 23, 2014 - 04:15:00 PM

Plácido Domingo has sung 144 different opera roles in the course of his long and illustrious career. Most of these, of course, were tenor roles, and Domingo is justly considered one of the present era’s greatest tenors. Since 2009, however, Domingo has begun singing baritone roles as well. On Saturday, May 17, 2014, Los Angeles Opera offered the opening night performance of Plácido Domingo in the baritone role of the Cenobite monk Athanael in Jules Massenet’s 1894 opera THAIS. Domingo’s performance in this meaty role was stupendous; and if Plácido Domingo had never been a tenor he might well be remembered as a great baritone. One might even be excused for saying that the role of Athanael in Massenet’s THAIS is perhaps Domingo’s role of a lifetime, so magnificent is his vocal and dramatic portrayal of this tormented monk. 

The reason behind Athanael’s torment is the voluptuous courtesan Thais, elegantly sung in Los Angeles by Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze. In composing this opera, Jules Massenet and his librettist, Louis Gallet, based their story on the novel Thais by Anatole France. The story is loosely based on an historical woman who lived in Egypt in the 4th century AD, when the ancient religion was beginning to be challenged by Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. (Some scholars believe the woman in question was the courtesan Mary of Egypt, while others identify her as Thais, who was sainted for her conversion to a penitent Christianity after leading a dissolute life.)  

Whoever was the historical figure of Thais, Anatole France’s novel and Massenet’s opera of the same title must be counted, with Gustave Flaubert’snovel Salammbô among other literary works from the late 19th century, as examples of what Edward Said critiqued under the rubric of “orientalism.”Here, as elsewhere, the exotic east is represented as an oversexed and amoral woman. Only here, in THAIS, there is a twist, as the licentious Egyptian woman gradually renounces her dissolute life and converts to a penitent Christianity, while the Christian monk Athanael who ‘saves her soul’ eventually loses his when he can no longer deny his all too natural carnal desires for the beautiful Thais. 

In Massenet’s opera, as in Anatole France’s novel, the conversion of Thais is brought about through the intervention of the monk Athanael, an ascetic who has left his native Alexandria to join a Cenobite monastery in the desert. As the opera begins, Cenobite monks gather in their desert monastery for a frugal evening meal, and, led by head monk, Palemon, offer prayers for their absent brother Athanael, who has gone to his native Alexandria for a brief visit. Shortly, Athanael returns and reports that he is revulsed by the sinful ways of a dissolute city that talks of nothing but the beautiful courtesan Thais. He acknowledges that he is tempted to return to Alexandria to save Thais’ soul. Palemon, the head monk, sung by bass Valentin Anikin, cautions against this, stating that their Cenobite community must have nothing to do with their corrupt era and live only by prayer and respecting their vow of poverty. 

In the Los Angeles Opera’s staging of THAIS, a production borrowed from the Finnish National Opera, with sets designed by Johan Engels for the Gothenburg Opera, Sweden, the opening scene in the Cenobite monastery looks nothing like an ascetic retreat in the Egyptian desert. Incongruously,the stage-set is a three-tiered structure of modern design with a metal spiral staircase by which the monks descend to make their entrance. Even more incongruously, the supposedly ascetic monks all wear elegant white gloves and sumptuous black robes with crimson trimming. The head monk, Palemon, even sports a gold braided chain around his neck. This whole scene looksmore like a meeting of the Académie Française than a community of ascetic monks in an Egyptian desert monastery! To further the anachronistic bent of this opening scene of THAIS, when Palemon exhorts his fellow monks to “renounce the material world,” he doffs a 19th century top hat! I suppose the intention here of director Nicola Raab is to make the point that religious organizations of all epochs may preach poverty yet regularly indulge them-selves in all the worldly pleasures they rail against. 

The time-frame of this staging of THAIS is further destabilized by the next scene, whose set consists of an elegant cutaway view of an opera house.As anachronisms go, this is a whopper. Clearly, there were no opera houses --and no operas – in the 4th century AD. Director Nicola Raab obviously wants to span the centuries and bring this 4th century AD tale into a context of late19th century opera, the very context in which Massenet’s THAIS was composed and first performed. In any case, the cutaway view of an opera house is the site of Athanael’s dream, the night he returns to the monastery, in which he sees all Alexandria hailing the courtesan Thais. When Athanael awakens from his dream, he tells his fellow monks he is resolved to return to Alexandria and try to convert Thais and save her soul. 

Regaining Alexandria, Athanael visits his old schoolmate Nicias, who lives in a posh villa across from the opera house. The villa of Nicias in this staging is suggested by an elegant throne-like chair situated in front of the cutaway view of the opera house. The richly attired Nicias, sung by the excellent tenor Paul Groves, welcomes his old friend and good-naturedly chides him for his ascetic philosophy. When Athanael asks if Nicias knows the courtesan Thais, Nicias laughs, saying he has spent a fortune to get Thais to spend a week with him. Tonight will be their last night together, says Nicias, adding that Thais will be here shortly. Meanwhile, Nicias plays the lavish host to a group of courtiers dressed in elegant 19th century evening wear. Just before Thais arrives, Nicias climbs atop the opera house stage and – in yet another outrageous anachronism -- dives into a mosh pit of courtiers. 

When Thais arrives, all eyes are on her. Regally attired, Thais wears a fantastic costume made of 9.5 yards of gold fabric, 10 yards of trim, and 96rhinestones. Her arms are clothed in eagle-like plumage. When she spreads wide her wing-like arms, she looks ready to take flight. When she wants to be coy, she wraps her wings to cover her face. In the role of Thais, soprano Nino Machaidze cut a beautiful figure. She also sang beautifully in a role that requires the soprano to range over 2.3 octaves, from low B to high D. In the initial confrontation between Athanael and Thais, the voluptuous courtesan chides the ascetic monk for denying himself the pleasures the world has to offer, the most wonderful of which is love. Thais declares that she worships the goddess of love, and recognizes no greater god than Venus.In the struggle between Athanael and Thais, round one clearly is won by Thais. 

Act II opens in the house of Thais. It is an opulent room, full of over-stuffed furniture, many brightly colored cushions, much oriental bric-a-brac,and a full-length mirror. Gazing at her own reflection in the mirror, Thais sings the beautiful aria “Dis-moi que je suis belle/Tell me I’m beautiful.” This aria begins on a brisk, self-congratulatory note, then slows down to reveal Thais’ insecurity over how long her beauty will last. If only, she muses, herbeauty might prove to be eternal. When Athanael arrives moments later, heoffers Thais a different notion of eternal life – that of the soul. In the role of Athanael, Plácido Domingo musters all the rich, dark intensity of his baritone vocalism in an effort to convert the pagan worshipper of the flesh to a Christianw orship of the soul. Thais admits she is deeply moved. Round two is seemingly won by Athanael. At the last minute, however, Thais reverts to form and asserts that she wants nothing of this ascetic monk and his god. Then she falls to the floor, sobbing violently at her mixed emotions. Athanael tells her to think things over during this night. He will await her tomorrow morning outside her door. He departs, and the curtain falls. 

Between the foregoing scene and the next is the famed orchestral intermezzo known as the Meditation from THAIS. To the lilting melodies of a solo violin, harp and orchestra, this Meditation was staged by Los AngelesOpera with Thais alone onstage, clad in a simple flowing gown, walking slowly to the front of the stage, where, with head held high, she seems lost in meditation over her relation to herself, to the gods, and even to her audience. It is a brilliant way of staging this lovely orchestral interlude, which becomes the literal turning point of the opera. When morning comes, Thais declares herself ready to accompany Athanael to the desert where he promises to place her a convent in the care of the abbess Albine. After a brief and raucous encounter with Nicias and the courtiers, Thais and Athanael set off to leave Alexandria for the desert. 

Act III, the opera’s final act, is set in the desert, where Athanael and Thais make their way toward abbess Albine’s convent. Exhausted, Thais can barely walk. Athanael harshly insists that the body must be punished to cleanse its sins. But when Thais falls to the ground, Athanael takes pity and becomes solicitous. She in turn thanks him tenderly for all his efforts to redeem her soul. Their tender duet, “Baigne d’eau mes mains et mes lèvres/Bathe my hands and lips with water,” is almost a love duet; and in the Los Angeles Opera staging it included a shyly suggestive kiss on the lips.  

Another turning point is reached here, for it is now becoming clear that while Thais is moving from the carnal to the spiritual, Athanael is moving in the opposite direction. Director Nicola Raab emphasizes this turnabout by having a circular stage-set revolve first in clockwise fashion, then, in the ensuing scene, in counter-clockwise motion. However, why director Raab included an auditorium’s group of chairs with men wearing black suits seated as if watching a spectacle (of religious conversion, on one hand, and conversion to the desires of the flesh, on the other), is opaque to me. And whether it was overkill on director Raab’s part to include a backdrop landscape of Egypt resembling the naked body of a woman lying on her side, with one very obvious breast and nipple feature dominating this landscape, is a very pertinent question. Is this perhaps an overly intellectual staging that strives to do too much and make too many points? 

In any case, this stage-set also serves for the opera’s final scene, where Thais, now a member of abbess Albine’s convent, becomes seriously ill and dies in a state of religious exaltation. Meanwhile, Athanael is more tormented thanever, as he realizes how ardently he desires Thais. He repents having renounced the desires of the flesh, and now affirms Thais’ former devotion to love. “There is nothing greater,” Athanael now realizes in an anguished cry, “than the love of two human beings.” With this fatal turnabout, Massenet’s THAIS comes to an end. In this Los Angeles Opera production, Plácido Domingo, in what is certainly one of the great roles of his lifetime, stole the show from the beautiful – and beautifully sung – portrayal of Thais by Nino Machaidze. It was a truly magnificent night at the opera.