PAGANISM v. CHRISTIANITY
“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” asks the man of the hooker in the bar.
“I’m lucky, I guess” replies the hooker.
This well-worn joke summarizes some of the plot of Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs that the Metropolitan Opera streamed this week as part of what it considers Rare Gems. The moniker rare refers to infrequency of performance but as to whether they are gems, it’s
chacun à son gout.
Thaïs is a courtesan in 4th century Alexandria and to describe her as lucky would be an understatement. She is gorgeous, has a palatial house and rents herself out by the week for a price that even a very rich man can afford her for only seven days. She is a worshipper of the goddess of love Venus but knows well that her beauty will not last forever. Soprano Renee Fleming, with her combination of vocal and physical beauty gives us a performance that would convince a carload of Fausts to sell their souls to Satan for one night with her.
The antithesis of Thais is the zealous monk Athanaël. He lives outside the city and wants to save Thais by converting her to Christianity. He offers mortification of the flesh, separation from people, life in a small cell, poverty, chastity and prayer. If she does all of that, Christ will grant her eternal life. Thomas Hampson with his virile baritone voice and commanding presence is an ideal Athanaël even though he is dressed and coiffed like someone sitting over a grate on Bay Street with an empty coffee cup in his hand.
The conversion of Thais from a pagan courtesan to a devout Christian sent to live in a small cell in a convent is at the heart of the opera. The parallel conversion is Athanaël who was in love and in lust with Thais as a young man but then became a fanatic monk and went to convert her to Christianity. He succeeds but on the way to the convent through the desert he realizes that he has fallen in love with her and has erotic dreams.
In the end they both destroy themselves physically. But Thais is apotheosized, goes to heaven and sees God. Athanaël loses his faith and renounces all he said about God as lies. The only thing that counts is love, his love for Thais.
Thaïs has some sensuous and heavenly music as well as some celestial singing. The Met Opera Orchestra conducted by Jesús López-Cobos performs superbly. The pagan versus Christian juxtaposition, the promise of eternal life at the cost of total repudiation of earthly life does not resonate now as it may have done in the past.
John Cox’s production on non-realistic sets stands out well. The sets suggest the desert where the monks live, the house of the wealthy Nicias (tenor Michael Schade), Thais’s house and the desert near the convent. They are suitable and appropriate.
There was a difference between what we saw in the movie theatre in 2008 and on our television screens of Thais during the pandemic as shown to us by video director Gary Halvorson. I will not go through the unnecessary closeups, the irrelevant camera shots and the frequent clicks.
The Meditation is a beautiful piece for solo violin (played masterfully by David Chan) and it reflects the thought processes of Thais as she converts from paganism to Christianity. The curtain is down and we watch the violinist. Halvorson shows us Fleming behind the curtain getting ready for the next scene. This breaks the mood and is an example of grotesque stupidity that one wonders at how incompetent does one have to be at the Met to be fired as television director.
There are many other examples but let’s move on.
Thais has been performed a mere 80 times at the Met so you may wish to catch it On Demand from the Met or free if it is streamed again. And that would be a good time to decide if Christianity or paganism gets the upper hand.
Thais by Jules Massenet in a production by the Chicago Lyric Opera was first was broadcast live in various theatres on December 20, 2008 and was streamed on May 24, 2021 by the Metropolitan Opera of New York. For more information go to: www.metopera.org/