“Thaïs.” Does the name ring a bell? If you are not an opera aficionado, the likely answer is no, unless you happen to recall the haunting “Méditation from Thaïs.” If so, you are on the right track. This late 19th-century French opera, based on a novel of the same name by Anatole France, is infrequently performed in the United States; however, LA Opera’s superstar General Director and tenor, recently cum baritone, Plácido Domingo, yearned to sing the lead part, the monk Athanaël. And so Los Angeles audiences have the opportunity to see this production of “Thaïs” by the Finnish National Opera currently on view at the Chandler.
Set in the fourth century, “Thaïs” is based on the story of Saint Thaïs, an Egyptian pagan who was converted to Christianity. After three years of being locked away in a penitent’s cell, she was released to live among the other nuns and promptly died two weeks later. In the retelling of the story by France and Massenet, Thaïs (Nino Machaidze) is the toast of le tout Alexandria. She is a courtesan of unmatched beauty and grace, and for the eight days prior to the opening scene, she is the mistress of Nicias (Paul Graves). Now Nicias just happens to be the former school pal of Athanaël, a monk who has decided to return to Alexandria for the precise purpose of converting said seductress. Ever since his previous journey to the city he has been obsessed by thoughts of her. Watching “Thaïs,” it is hard to escape the thought, “Look at any newspaper, isn’t this what religious zealots are continuing to do?” Women and young boys have not fared well when lust and religious fervor collide.
In the opening scene, the men of the cloth are gathered. All but Athanaël are in quite splendid cloth at that. Though the text is fourth century AD, all costumes and most sets in this production are strictly 19th century. Why and to what end? Darned if I know. Athanaël, clad in classic sackcloth, leaves his splendidly adorned brethren in their comfortable quarters and sets off on his mission of conversion. Arriving in Alexandria, he finds old school chum Nicias torturing himself with grief because this is his eighth and final night with Thaïs. Nicias has spent his entire considerable fortune on his week of bliss. Athanaël wastes little time trying to bring his friend to faith; conversion of Thaïs is his goal, and nothing will stand in his way.
Much use is made of the Chandler’s rotating stage. Sometimes we are the audience in a 19th-century European opera house; more frequently we are backstage looking out. There is a brothel-like abundance of gilt and crimson. Women are draped in yards of what looks like heavy drapery brocade encrusted with all that glitters. Poor Nino Machaidze has so many yards of heavy fabric, at times she was in danger of tripping despite the fact her arms were attired as wings with long feathers. Did she look like a sexy courtesan? I do not think so. To me she looked like she had been attired by a former Soviet era, Gum department store lingerie designer. She was so heavily draped that it was not until I looked at the photos that I realized she was a slender woman, as befits the role.
Nor is Machaidze’s glorious but strident soprano typical of French opera. Her voice, however, is a match for conductor Patrick Fournillier’s vigorous approach to Massenet’s score. Under the baton of James Conlon, the LA Opera orchestra is notable for its support of singers. Fournillier, on the other hand, is often competitive. making subtle interpretation a challenge.
Luckily for Athanaël, he has an ally in his plan to convert Thaïs, because the libretto does not flesh out a compelling case. The ally is Thaïs’ vanity. Alone in her overwrought and very French boudoir, she studies herself in the mirror and faces the reality that her youthful beauty and its concomitant lure will not last forever. Then what will life be like? She is ripe for the plucking when Athanaël presses his impassioned plea for conversion.
Together Athanaël and Thaïs trudge Moses-like through the desert, Athanaël possessed of the view that she needs to suffer in penitence. For Act III, the center of the revolving stage is an apparently burned-out theater with scattered Roman columns. The audience is the male chorus of religious brethren from Act I dressed in askew black tie with shirttails hanging out. Round and round goes the circular stage; dutifully the pair trudges, mostly in place. On the backdrop are desert dunes, which more than one male audience member saw as breasts. When she is finally delivered to the convent, Thaïs is half dead. Three years of solitary penitence in a narrow cell may rid her of her base desires, but it has also taken her life force. In a few days she is dead. Meanwhile Athanaël, still obsessed by worldly thoughts of her, returns to Alexandria to find she has died. Domingo and Machaidze’s final duet, “C’est toi, mon père” is glorious. Whatever lack of passion he showed in earlier arias, Domingo clearly expressed in the finale. Thaïs has embraced the teachings of Christianity and Athanaël has confessed his earthly lust.
Key to understanding “Thaïs” is Anatole France’s own philosophy, “I have only two enemies: Christ and chastity.” The point of this production design is less clear. It certainly does little to illuminate the meaning of “Thaïs” and much to enrich the coffers of rhinestone and brocade manufacturers. The takeaway moment remains the “Méditation,” a lovely orchestral interlude. Overall it is a pleasant-enough evening of music, but one unlikely to move “Thaïs” into the pantheon of operatic favorites.