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Athanael appears with his head full of images of the wicked city of Alexandria and the notorious courtesan Thaïs. It would seem, that for a successful performance of the opera all you really need is a singer who can embody the sexiness of Thaïs, but in fact the most difficult role to bring off is Athanael. It is only in Act 3 that he comes to realise that his concern for Thaïs is closer to love than a wish to bring her to God. In Acts 1 and 2 his religious monomania can seem tedious and it requires a very special singer to convince you of his passion. Ashley Holland brought this off brilliantly. He does not have the loveliest of voices, his is not a glowingly burnished baritone voice. But he is an expressive singer and actor, his voice easily rode the orchestral climaxes such as his glorious solo 'Voila, le terrible cité'. More importantly he convinced us of the incredible commitment and passion contained within the main. A number of characters comment on the power of Athanael's eyes and Holland made us believe this without ever going over the top. His Athanael was dignified, even when forced to strip to his underwear and be laughed over by Thaïs's girl companions (servants in the original, her backing vocalists in this updating).

During the first scene, Athanael has a vision of Thaïs. In the libretto he sees her in rear view, scantily clad in the theatre acknowledging applause from the audience. Fielding gave us something similar but also gave notice of his rather daring conceit in the updating; Thaïs becomes a Madonna-like figure complete with leather basque.

In the second scene Athanael has travelled to Alexandria and gone to the house of Nicias. Nicias is a rich playboy whom Athanael knew before he was a monk. Nicias has spent most of his money hiring Thaïs for the week and Athanael arrives on what is to be their last night. Fielding has much fun updating Nicias's party to the modern poolside shenanigans of a pop entourage. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, bulky of body and possessed of a dramatic tenor voice, is not the conventional image of a rich playboy. But Fielding does not present the character like this; instead Nicias is a sort of manager figure, dressed in shorts, baseball cap and rapper-like bling. Lloyd-Roberts brings this off brilliantly. Whilst his voice does not give the music the sort of svelte caress which a certain type of French tenor would have given it, he sang with a fine sense of line and a fair degree of suavity. The stage image of Nicias and his entourage made me worry that Fielding might resort to sending up the opera, but this was not true. Whilst he and the enthusiastic chorus has fun depicting the party revellers, they made fun of Athanael but we never laughed at Athanael, instead we felt for him. Fielding and Ashley-Holland succeeded in emphasising Athanael's dignity and his unworldliness.

Nicias's party (Act 2 scene 2), featuring Ashley Holland (Athanael) and Anne-Sophie Duprels (Thaïs). Photo © 2006 Alastair Muir
Nicias's party (Act 2 scene 2), featuring Ashley Holland (Athanael) and Anne-Sophie Duprels (Thaïs). Photo © 2006 Alastair Muir

As Thaïs, Anne-Sophie Duprels showed off a trim figure and a fine lyric voice that was more than ample in volume for Grange Park Opera's quite small theatre. She is a characterful singer in the French mould rather than one possessed of a simply lovely voice. Duprels created Thaïs's sexiness, not by impressing us with the sheen of her voice, but by the way she sang and shaped Massenet's music. Perhaps she was not entirely comfortable with the rather sexy image she had to project in Fielding's production, wearing some remarkably scanty costumes. But she did manage to convey a hint of the vulnerability that lies underneath Thaïs's character.

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Copyright © 8 June 2006 Robert Hugill, London UK


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Classical Music Programme Notes for concerts and recordings, by Malcolm Miller