Posted by: operatheaterink | May 23, 2014

Review: ‘Thaïs,’ Los Angeles Opera, May 23, 2014

Great Voices, Sets and Costumes: LA Opera’s ‘Thaïs’ Is a Pleaser.

Pläcido Domingo as Athanaël, Nino Machaidze as Thaïs.       Photo: Robert Millard

Plácido Domingo as Athanaël,
Nino Machaidze as Thaïs.
(Photo: Robert Millard)

SEEN MAY 17, 2014

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

Los Angeles Opera’s production of Jules Massenet’s “Thaïs” drew roaring applause and a standing ovation from an appreciative audience on opening night. And all of the commotion was centered on the performances of superstar Plácido Domingo as a baritonal Athanaël and world-renowned soprano Nino Machaidze as Thaïs. The rest of the singers seemed incidental to the audience, but in reality, they were all quite excellent. I must make note of the violinist who deserved a standing ovation for playing the harmonically melodic “Méditation.” Roberto Cani was the masterful musician who almost stole the show.

As for the story: Athanaël, a fourth-century Egyptian Cenobite monk, sets out on a mission to Alexandria to tame a sinful city and save its most beautiful courtesan, Thaïs. But once he has succeeded, he discovers his own earthly passions for her and despairs. Repenting takes a toll on her body, and she dies while he cries out in anguish.

This production — designed by Johan Engels, directed by Nicola Raab, and imported from the Finnish National Opera, Helsinki and the Gothenburg Opera, Sweden — is elaborate and visual. A revolving stage keeps the audience watching. Whether looking at the principal singers ascending a spiral staircase; whether eyeing a theater bedecked with red draperies or the intricately decorated residence of Thaïs; whether viewing an oasis in the desert or a monastery garden — the meticulously executed set changes and visions are spectacular.

One minute we seem to be viewing an Egyptian harem during the Byzantine era; the next, an apartment at the turn of the 20th century in Paris à la the film, “Gigi.”

Engels’ costumes are exquisite no matter what period represented. Thaïs’s gold-beaded gown with a headdress and birdlike appendages is breathtaking, then equaled by a white-satin gown with gold ribbing and a crown bedecked with diamonds. Bright colored hues denote the lustier scenes in contrast with whites which signify purity. 

The sentiments communicated are not unlike those in Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”: Venus and the bacchanal versus Elisabeth and purity. A tug and a pull — the characters are drawn in opposing directions in both operas. With a libretto by Louis Gallet, “Thaïs” is based on a novel by Anatole France.

As for the music, “Thaïs” is rarely performed, yet Renée Fleming has revived it to prominence. Although the music is at times inspiring, the arias are not plentiful and are included as part of the action. The most noteworthy melody is the “Méditation,” an orchestral intermezzo for violin and harp. The motif is repeated after being introduced, and each time it surfaces with vocality, it takes the opera to a higher plane.

Domingo sang Athanaël’s aria, “Voilà donc la terrible cite,” with strength and passion. At 73, his voice and technique remain strong; his charisma, powerful.

Yet Athanaël is labeled a baritone while Domingo is known as a tenor. So is Domingo a tenor singing baritonal roles now? Or is he a baritone? He still sounds like a tenor to me who has chosen not to sing the high notes. Does it matter? I don’t know. Would the composer mind? I don’t know. Rosina in “The Barber of Seville” is either a mezzo-soprano or soprano, and the only thing I care about is the caliber of her voice. Domingo began his career as a baritone, then developed his high tones. So as his voice ages, he is wise to simply sing roles where the tessitura is comfortable. His informed decision has enabled him to continue his career indefinitely to our delight. As Athanaël, he made up for any negligible losses of youthful ease with a strong, centered and secure vocal and physical characterization that defied age and made us, especially those of us over 60, want to stand up and cheer for him. When we see him passionately refusing to succumb to the effects of time, determined to maintain a high level of artistry by overcoming any obstacles — he motivates us to strive a little harder and do a little better, for we feel privileged to be in the same room with him as we watch him perform. Although there are many rising tenors on the horizon, so far, Domingo’s kingly crown remains untarnished.

As Thaïs, soprano Nino Machaidze proved her vocal agility from low notes to high. Her “Dis-moi que je suis belle” drew a well-deserved applause. Her lustrous voice was complemented with her grace of movement and beauty. The two final duets were memorable and moving.

Bass Valentin Anikin as Palémon had one of the best voices of the evening. In an unthankful role, he should not be overlooked for the unique quality of his sound. Tenor Paul Groves as Nicias added stature to the proceedings. LA Opera did some luxury casting with mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic as Albine. The mezzo gave a stand-out performance earlier in the season as Carmen.

Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoé Velasco and Kihun Yoon sang with gusto. And the LA Opera Orchestra was led skillfully under the baton of Massenet specialist Patrick Fournillier.

Yet in spite of all the raves this “Thaïs” well deserves, I still found something lacking that I was unable to describe. What makes opera so enthralling for me is that I can watch different singers portray one particular character over and over again without tiring. The more I hear and see an opera, the more I want to see and hear it. The melodies become more memorable for me, and I find the different interpretations enlightening. So after the LA Opera performance, I went home and clicked onto YouTube where I discovered Renée Fleming singing “Thaïs” with Thomas Hampson. I watched the final duet and felt the needed poignancy. “Thaïs” premiered in 1894 Paris. Fleming and Hampson mastered the French accent, the French sound, and, most importantly, the emotionalism and style:  

But I don’t want to detract from the many fine attributes of this deliciously innovative Domingo-Machaidze “Thaïs.”

Plácido Domingo is an amazing artist to be admired for his unheard of vocal longevity. Machaidze is a star on the rise. And this “Thaïs” is a production to be seen, remembered, savored, and revived.

Conductor: Patrick Fournillier
Director: Nicola Raab
Scenery Design: Johan Engels
Costume Designer: Johan Engels
Lighting Designer: Linus Fellbom
Chorus Master: Grant Gershon

 Nino Machaidze.                              Photo: Robert Millard

Nino Machaidze.
(Photo: Robert Millard)