Sunday 4 January 2009

Thaïs, Metropolitan Opera, 2 January 2009

Metropolitan Opera, New York

Cenobite monks – Daniel Clark Smith, Roger Andrews, Kurt Phinney, Richard Pearson, Craig Montgomery
Palémon – Alain Vernhes
Athanaël – Thomas Hampson
Guard – Trevor Scheunemann
Crobyle – Alyson Cambridge
Myrtale – Ginger Costa-Jackson
Nicias – Michael Schade
Thaïs – Renée Fleming
La Charmeuse – Leah Partridge
Albine – Maria Zifchak
Solo dancer – Zahra Hashemian
Violin solo – David Chan

John Cox (producer)
Christian Lacroix (costumes for Renée Fleming)
Duane Schuler (lighting)
Sara Jo Slate (choreographer)

Metropolitan Opera Chorus (chorus master: Donald Palumbo)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Jesús López-Cobos (conductor)

This was unlike any operatic performance I have previously attended: not only the work itself – I can hardly claim to be a Massenet habitué and Thaïs is distinctly odd – but also the production and general experience. First, let us consider Thäis. It has tended to be revived and was arguably created as a ‘vehicle’ for a star soprano. We certainly had that in Renée Fleming and I assume that it was her allure that drew in the crowds to the Metropolitan Opera. It is difficult to imagine that this could justly be attributed to a sizable Massenet constituency in New York – or indeed, one that might have flown in for the occasion. For Thaïs, I am afraid to say, contrives to be both bizarre and for the most part dull. Part of the problem would seem to be the work of the librettist, Louis Gallet, who appears to have extracted the ironic anti-clericalism from Anatole France’s novel – which sounds rather interesting: I should be keen to read it – and left us with a story in which a fanatical fourth-century monk, Athanaël attempts and succeeds to win over to his ascetic faith the courtesan, Thaïs, only to succumb to his suppressed lusts and attempt to win her back for the dark side. However, she dies and in her already-declared sainthood is not far off assumed into heaven, as she experiences a vision of angels. (As the late Anna Russell used to say, 'I’m not making this up, you know!') Thaïs’s conversion is so incredibly abrupt that the phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’ seems risibly inadequate for what one must do to one’s dramatic faculties. Moreover, there is no longer any attack upon clerical hypocrisy, for Athanaël fights temptation rather than dissembles. If anything, Athanaël is more the central character, yet that principal reason we might have for him being so has vanished. There might remain interesting contemporary resonances in his fundamentalism but they would need to be dealt with more forcefully than in this production. What in the world of television used to be called ‘continuity’, and perhaps still is, did not seem to have been closely attended to, for the libretto – yes, this was no quirk of the production – had Athanaël threatened with a rifle as he entered Nicias’s Alexandrian palace. (I am well aware of the clock in Julius Caesar, but that is no excuse.)

Before coming to the production, it is worth commenting upon the score itself. It has odd moments, such as the offstage music at the beginning of the second scene of Act II – very well performed. There is also some slightly more interesting music by the oasis in the third act, although it is hardly ‘superbly effective’, to quote the wildly enthusiastic programme note by Thomas May. For the most part, however, it is insipid, with the odd very watered-down Wagnerism. Pelléas this is not, in any sense. Sometimes, such music can sound better than it is. I imagine that Sir Thomas Beecham might have worked some magic upon it. Jesús López-Cobos did not, seeming content to let it flow, or sometimes drag. The playing of the Met orchestra sounded routine; it is easy to sympathise. More worryingly still, so in thrall did the conductor seem to Fleming that he often appeared to be following her rather than vice versa. And what we might charitably term her tempo fluctuations were more than a little on the arbitrary side.

If ever a work cried out for Regietheater it was this: a new twist just might have granted some dramatic credibility to what is at best kitsch, but more often plain uninteresting. As the reader may have guessed, such was not to be in this production shipped in from the Lyric Opera of Chicago. John Cox had us veer between poster-paint scenes of the Egyptian desert and an Alexandria that more or less resembled modern Las Vegas. The cast seemed more or less left to fend for themselves, for the real point of the production seemed to be to showcase the dress designs of Christian Lacroix. They might have worked wonders for a fundraising operatic gala but they had little connection with anything else that was going on. Fleming’s countless changes of wardrobe – they probably were not that many, yet their focal nature made it seem as if they were – resembled the behaviour of a television hostess for an awards ceremony. The last one was almost – but not quite – surreally inappropriate for someone who had entered a convent and was on her deathbed. All too lengthy scene changes, not only between but even within acts, dissipated what little dramatic tension there might have been. And certain members of the audience seemed unable even to listen, applauding before numbers had finished, perhaps most bizarrely during the celebrated violin Méditation. What happened once the Méditation had oame to an end verged upon the incredible. Not only was there applause, but López-Cobos joined in and summoned the soloist to his feet in the pit. Was this a post-modern take upon performance, reception, and so on? It would have been irritating or worse if it had been, but it just appeared to be part of the same ‘gala experience’. If the performers and production team do not even try to take the work seriously, it is a little much to ask others to do so.

What of the singing? That was better, though hardly outstanding. Fleming at her best sounded at her best but her diction was variable and she exhibited some surprisingly ropy intonation. Thomas Hampson was more dramatically credible as Athanaël. During the first act, his performance sometimes tended towards crudity, but it might be argued that this was not inappropriate for the character. Later on, he became more mellifluous, although his French did not always sound idiomatic. Michael Schade was better in that respect as Nicias, even though he sometimes sounded a little out of vocal sorts. (I am not sure that I can blame him; he would surely have preferred to be singing Tamino.) It was quite a relief to hear the French style – both verbal and musical – of Alain Vernhes’s Palémon. I was not surprised when consulting the programme afterwards to discover that the role had been assumed by a Frenchman. Maria Zifchak’s small contribution as Albine was therefore all the more to be cherished, since she had no such native advantage.

What I cannot understand, though, is why one would choose this work if one were Renée Fleming. It seems difficult to believe that there was any other reason for its revival. And yet, surely there are so many other, more gratifying roles in which she could have excelled. Much as I may deplore it, I can understand the cult of the singer, but it is an odd cult indeed if the music and the drama are so uninvolving. Thaïs or the Marschallin? I should have thought that decision would be, as many Americans like to say, a ‘no-brainer’.