Jules Massenet: Thaïs (1898 Version)

Opera en trois actes et sept tableaux. Running Time: 2 hour 23 minutes.

This review is of the 1976 studio recording  released by EMI with Beverly Sills in the title role with Nicolai Gedda, and Sherrill Milnes.

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St. Thaïs/St. Mary Magdalene (Which?), Painting by Jose de Ribera (1641). 

FOR THOSE SHORT FOR TIME: Anna Moffo as Thaïs in 1974, with Jose Carreras as Nicias. (I believe this includes the entirety of the title role).

Written for the American coloratura soprano Sibyl Sanderson (as was Esclarmonde), this is one of the few operas Massenet wrote that has for the most part remained popular, although today its storyline might come off as laughable. Not that the opening night was not without its troubles: Sanderson suffered a costume malfunction during a seductive stripe -tease (she apparently pulled off a Janet Jackson 110 years before that was a thing) which was set to a chromatic orchestral intermezzo between the first and second acts (which were originally performed without intermission) entitled “L’amours d’Aphrodite”. This was apparently 196 bars of music (around seven and a half minutes of music) but was cut to the 17 final bars in the 1898 revision of the opera and has not been performed since then. All recordings of the opera are of this 1898 revision (which also has a different ballet and an additional scene in act 3); the original 1894 version has not been performed since the late-1890s.

OperaScribe has informed me that the plot of this opera is to be taken ironically, not seriously. A monk loses his faith because of a Christian woman turned prostitute turned Christian monastic, and the final death scene is actually satirical. The original novel (which I reference below) is rather nihilistic, so the opera actually refers to that nihilism even when it appears to be an inspiring religious drama. Frankly I was under the impression that the opera was a religious melodrama in which a prostitute is saved by the same man who in turn loses his faith because of her. Not that the opera is promoting sex as an alternative to faith, it actually implies that both are hollow and ultimately useless.

The scenario is based on the fourth-century Christian saint Thaïs of Egypt, filtered through an anti-clerical novel by the left-wing French writer Anatole France (it includes a chapter on how philosophy is the definition of vanity). Apparently the story was also very popular in Medieval Europe. There is another theory that the Christian story is nothing more than a morality tale with no historical basis in fact and ultimately derived from a Thaïs from Ancient Greece who travelled with Alexander the Great and became the mistress of Ptolemy I.

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The Real Thaïs burnt Persepolis? Joshua Reynolds, 1781. 

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Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse: Thaïs lifted by Alexander/Incendie de Persepolis, 1890.

Incidentally, the libretto is entirely written in prose instead of verse.

SETTING: Egypt, late-4th century. The Cenobite monk Athanaël (baritone) seeks to convert Thaïs (soprano) an Alexandrian high class prostitute, to Christianity, in spite of the warnings of his superior Palemon (bass). He meets up with his former friend Nicias (tenor) who is currently the lover of Thaïs. Eventually the monk wins her over to Christ, but he then ends up wanting her for himself but she dies before he can do anything about it.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (45 minutes)

Scene 1: A Coenobite Community in the Egyptian desert.

1: Voici le pain The opening scene ** starts with the quiet whirl of the desert before we come upon the holy monastic tones of Palemon, leader of the coenobite monks as a ritual is about to take place. Athanaël, the most hard-core of the monks, comes on and tells Palemon that he has seen a vision of the courtesan Thaïs of Alexandria (whom he knew in childhood) and he believes that he has been given a divine order to convert her to Christianity and have her retire to a convent. Palemon warns against this, (the first reference of the famous Meditation occurs at the end in the cellos).

13: Toi qui mis la pitié After a long interlude (including an organ) in which we realize that Athanaël is really erotically interested in Thaïs (and this should have been the point at which I figured out this wasn’t a religious drama), he determines to leave in spite of the warning of his superior **. Good contrast between Athanaël and the chanting monks on either end, but really I would like something lighter quickly.

Scene 2: Alexandria, an outer courtyard at the home of Nicias.

18, 21: Voilà donc la terrible cité A Wagnerian intermezzo ** (notice the horns), provides something much lighter, specifically a flirty whirlwind tune that continues into the dialogue and a monologue for Athanaël as he waits for the arrival of Nicias and prays for divine strength (but strength for what exactly?) ***.

29: Je vais done te revoir Nicias arrives and gets his two servant girls Crobyle and Myrtale off of the apparently collapsed monk. He goes into some backstory about how he ended up the latest lover of the famous courtesan and Athanaël tells him that he plans on reforming her. Nicias warns him that that probably isn’t a good idea, but he orders his servant girls to dress the monk for a banquet that evening in any case. The girls assault his puritanism ** in the weirdest quartet. I still don’t get the logistics of dressing a man in your living room just before a host of guests show up, but whatever.

33: Thaïs ! sœur des Karites ! The arrival of the guests (and Thaïs) ** occurs to a bit of  Ancient Roman-sounding joviality that would not be out of place in a Hollywood film fifty years later (flutes, tambourine). This will come up rather a lot into the next act.

35: C’est Thaïs, I’idole fragile Thaïs makes her first utterances in a rather sedate (but serious and severe) duet * with Nicias: their relationship will end with the next dawn. She eventually takes notice of Athanaël and is intrigued by him. He is introduced by Nicias, but his overture to teach her contempt for the flesh and love of pain does not go off well.

40: Qui te fait si sévère Thaïs declares that her only creed is love and sings a sexy song **. This infuriates him, although he threatens to return later, but the guests just make fun of him and Thaïs warns him not to defy Venus as the act abruptly ends.

ACT 2: (55 minutes)

Scene 1: A room in the house of Thaïs.

0: Ah ! je suis seule, seule enfin ! Thaïs contemplates her rather empty life in the famous Mirror Aria  ***: lots of sex, no sense of connection or intimacy at all, as well as how her beauty will eventually fade with age. Notice the quotation from Esclarmonde, it shows up in Cendrillon as well. 

7: Seigneur, fais que son radieux visage Athanaël confronts Thaïs again *** (praying to have the strength not to get on top of her apparently). The number starts off with mostly rather standard salutation until she decides that attempting to seduce him is a good idea, but he tries to continue his Christian/monastic life pitch.

15: Je n’ai pas plus choisi She starts to break down **. Somehow Athanaël gets the idea to take off his robes at this point and push his monasticism bit again. Nicias breaks the spell by singing a sultry song outside and Thaïs remembers that she likes mindless sex and orders the monk out. She laughs at him rather disturbingly as he goes.

19: The famous Méditation ***, a beautiful violin concerto which I am inclined to wish was actually the overture to the opera rather than having it placed so late because the main tune gets crammed into everything in act three. It depicts the spiritual awakening of Thaïs to Christianity and her new yearning for the monastic life. It is followed by a strange ballet movement and we go into a low point in the score.

Scene 2: The street outside the house of Thaïs.

29: Considère, ô mon père Thaïs has decided to go with Athanaël after all and he emphasizes how she is to lead a chaste life for now on. The weird ballet music comes back as he furiously tells her to destroy all of her property and burn down her house. She asks only that she may keep a medal of Eros, as a reminder that she did not sin because of love but rather against it, in a gentle little aria *. When she reveals that Nicias gave it to her this infuriates Athanaël who orders her to destroy it.

34: A ten-minute long ballet * is included here: good, rigorous pseudo-near eastern orchestral music. The first movement in particular is interesting. It then goes soft into some snake charmer material in the oboe.

45: Celle qui vient est plus belle Nicias arrives with partiers (that party tune from act 1 returns in full force here) and orders Crobyle and Myrtale to sing the Hymn of Beauty * which has some strange and mystical (if gratuitous) coloratura arpeggios. This is followed by a final, furious ballet passage as the crowd orgies about.

52: Ah! taisez-vous ! Athanaël reveals his new, dour and unsexy Thaïs, who is hated by everyone **. A furious protest from the people erupts and eventually Nicias throws money at the crowd in order to allow the two to flee.

ACT 3: (43 minutes)

Scene 1: The Oasis.

0: A rather richer orchestra opener this **. The same music continues on as Thaïs and Athanaël are seen trekking it through the desert. Thais is obviously in the early stages of dying from exhaustion. Athanaël makes far too many annoyed references to Nicias to not obviously be jealous of the fact that the latter has slept with her and he (Athanaël) has not. There are multiple references to the Meditation (obvious at this point since this scene was written four years later, Massenet knew he hit the jackpot with that one tune and is milking it) but the first thing of interest is a brief passage in which they find a spring. Thaïs talks about how much she wants to go totally Christian and eventually die and see Jesus.

11: Baigne d’eau mes main Finally, something resembling an actual duet occurs **, gentle, but after a while they are interrupted by the arrival of the nuns and their abbess Albine, who in spite of the fact that they are Egyptian, chant their Pater Nosters in Latin. Also, if they were within walking distance of the convent, why bother resting at an oasis for hours? Thaïs enters the convent, and now Athanaël realizes that he will never see her again. More Meditation.

Scene 2: Same as act one scene one.

23: Une orgueilleuse joie The scary dark theme from the prelude comes back (it seems to be the same music at first actually). We are amongst the Cenobites again. They are agitated by the anti-social behaviour Athanaël has been expressing lately. He eventually, and stormily, confesses to Palemon that he wants Thaïs **. Palemon is annoyed because he told him not to try to convert her, but no he had to bring this upon himself.

26: Thaïs !…We then go into a noxious panto * bit in which a vision of Thaïs playfully engages in what is so obviously a sex dream with Athanaël. She annoyingly laughs at him as she did in act two (am I the only one who finds this annoying?). It doesn’t last long before he realizes that Thais is dying (nuns chorus). Massenet ends the scene with a manic battery chord fest.

Scene 3: The convent, Thaïs laid out on her deathbed stage centre.

33: Seigneur, ayez pitié de moi The last scene * consists of ennui punctuated by Massenet literally beating that Meditation melody to death in a mockery of the concepts of faith and of physical love. The nuns go about being morose and fatal (truly they are the weakest link the score). The scene musically lacks the pathos required by the onstage dramatic situation, is rather hollow, and this is deliberate. Athanaël comes on and tells the dying Thaïs how much he wants to possess her. He has no faith anymore and the oblivious Thaïs gets a gratuitous coloratura soprano vocal display based on Meditation  before dying. It is a pretty death, but something about the combination of nihilism, religion, and mockery makes me feel a bit unclean.

COMMENTS:

Thaïs is an opera that I find hard to stomach. It is a blending of religion and eroticism, and that is okay, but it is also a critique of, rather ironically, both religion and eroticism. It is Nihilistic: the author of the original novel was an anti-clerical Atheist who liked trashing human thought (secular or otherwise) and the main thing being objected to here is philosophy more so than religion. As OperaScribe informed me, it is a product of the Decadent Movement in late-19th century Western Europe, with its skepticism of all things and where truth is relegated to the status of a sensual recognition of a specific moment in time, in other words, it is subjective. Decadence also prized human creativity over logic or rational though. Ironically, this fatalistic way of looking at the world parallels our current outlook with a large element within societies around the world doubting the existence of objective truth. So how does this relate to the opera?: Athanaël is at best horny and at worst a religious nut case. Or perhaps he acts like a religious nut case because he is so horny? His motivation is to lock the object of his desire up in a convent. This could be a critique of the idea of the preservation of that which is finite (human life and love) in the wrappings of the religious promise of eternal life, or even godhood. The ending is marred by the acknowledgement that Thaïs is really just experiencing an hallucination (there is no afterlife), and Athanaël knows this. That this hallucination occurs to such a lovely violin piece exemplifies the Decadent emphasis on human creativity (a strikingly beautiful melody in an opera that mostly lacks distinctive melodies) while a main character is dying in the apparent self-delusion of spirituality and Christian philosophy. At least the sexual desire Athanaël feels for her is at least real, although the story even denies us a consolation in hedonism because that too is folly.

The opera, even in 1894, was noted for its lack of pageantry and direct action. The storyline is thin and was even beefed up slightly by the addition in 1898 of the Oasis scene (in which Athanaël brings Thaïs to the convent) because it was not clear what exactly had transpired between the second and third acts. The original third act started with what is now act three scene two, followed by an extended dream sequence for Athanaël in which he is subjected to tortures by demonic spirits, and culminating in an black sabbath orgy before he has a vision telling him that Thaïs is dying. Its absence is probably a relief.

The Méditation, which at first seems to represent the faith of Thaïs and NOT the romantic attraction of Athanaël for her even though Massenet seems to be using it for both in act three, is probably mocking a romantic or philosophical ideal which is being torn down by this ironically nihilistic fable. I do not think that I will ever experience the piece the same way again. It is very beautiful, but its usage at the end seems somewhat cruel to the title character as she goes through her final agony. Just as Thaïs laughed at the monk, now the orchestra is laughing at her, because apparently there is no god, afterlife, immortal soul, or any objective truth in human thought. But her life was crap as a prostitute as well.

An alpha minus.

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