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Wonderfully Enjoyable

Massenet's 'Thaïs',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


I have always had rather a soft spot for Massenet's Thaïs, having seen it staged in Manchester by the Royal Northern College of Music in the early 1970s (with a young Robin Leggate as Nicias). I fell in love with its combination of lyricism and conciseness and could never understand why the opera was not more performed. There have been concert performances in London in recent years given by English National Opera, and the Royal Opera is planning further concert performances next season with Renée Fleming. But the distinction of actually staging the opera has fallen to Grange Park Opera who premièred David Fielding's production at their opera house in Northington Grange, Hampshire on 2 June 2006 (production seen 4 June). Staff at Grange Park Opera were not making any claims for the primacy of the production because, RNCM apart, no-one seems very sure whether or not the opera has ever received a professional staging in the UK. There were rumours of a production being mounted for Valerie Masterson, but these never came to anything. So this is the first professional staging in the UK for a very long time.

The opera was written in the 1890s for Sybil Sanderson, a glamorous singer with whom Massenet was having an affair. The first night seems to have been graced by a Janet Jackson-like 'wardrobe malfunction' that helped the work's reputation. Mary Garden took up the title role, but since then the opera has only been seen sporadically. The plot has something to do with this, it combines eastern exoticism, sexual allure and religion in a mix that is typical for Massenet and for late 19th century French opera, but which can leave us a little queasy nowadays. But Massenet clothes this in wonderfully melodic music that never outstays its welcome and this master orchestrator brings to the opera a wonderful variety of timbres and textures. These range from the male voice choruses of the monks to the mock native Egytian dance music.

The plot concerns the monk, Athanael (baritone Ashley Holland) who lives in an isolated religious community led by Palemon (bass Vuyani Mlinde). Athanael is obsessed with the courtesan/actress Thaïs (Anne-Sophie Duprels) and the opera charts Athanael's successful attempts to convert her. Thaïs ends up dying, saint-like in a convent but at the expense of Athanael's peace of mind as he realises too late that he loves her.

Act 1 scene 1 of Grange Park Opera's 'Thaïs'. Photo © 2006 Alastair Muir
Act 1 scene 1 of Grange Park Opera's 'Thaïs'. Photo © 2006 Alastair Muir

Designer/Director David Fielding set the opera in a flexible single abstract set in greys and whites. The rear of the set included a huge cross-shaped opening which Fielding the designer used to characterise the various scenes using a variety of drops and projections. The opening scene is set in the monks' community with them sharing a meal together. From the opening, two things became apparent. First, Fielding was giving the opera a contemporary setting. The whole scene was strikingly designed in just black and white, with the monks cafeteria style trays striking a very modern touch. The second thing that stuck me was that Grange Park Opera's employment of a full time chorus director (Nicholas Jenkins) has paid off, and the twelve men of the chorus gave Massenet's male-voice choruses a lovely sheen.

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Copyright © 8 June 2006 Robert Hugill, London UK


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