BWW Review: Perez Entices but Finley Triumphs in Massenet's THAIS at the Met
Is it time for a re-evaluation of Massenet's place in the current repertoire and put it up a notch? I wondered after seeing the season's opening performance of the Met's John Cox production of Massenet's THAIS on Saturday afternoon. With the right performers, there's a good case for his juicy, melodic writing--among the plethora of BOHEMES, TURANDOTS and BUTTERYFLYs on the season's schedule--although the stipulation of "right performers" is, as always, the catch.
Of the nearly three dozen operas by the composer, only a handful are regularly performed; at the Met, it's whittled down to only three: MANON, WERTHER and THAIS--with the latter having only 80 performances in the company's history by the end of this season's run. (These will be joined for the first time by CENDRILLON, the composer's "Cinderella," with Joyce DiDonato in the spring.) The score may not be the equal of his other two mainstays at the Met--and he does get carried away using the motif from the famed "Meditation" violin solo, played with charm and restraint by David Chan--it nonetheless deserves more than a passing glance.
For me, the star of the show this time--in a production mounted for Renee Fleming in 2008--was not the famed courtesan from Alexandria, Egypt, who gave the opera its name (sung by soprano Ailyn Perez in her role debut) but baritone Gerald Finley as Athanael, a Cenobite monk. He gave a riveting performance as he fought against his attraction for Thais, until, finally ready to give in to her 'charms', she dies in his arms at the opera's conclusion. His smooth and rich singing, and subtle acting--particularly when he drops Thais off at the convent--made us care more about a character who gives in to the 'lust in his heart' than we might have.
This was the soprano's maiden voyage as the courtesan-turned-nun, and she had some ups and downs. Her voice didn't warm up completely-she did some 'sliding into home' early in the performance--until the middle of Act II and then her singing was fine, more than fine, for the rest of the afternoon, though I didn't find much in the way of dramatic fireworks. For me, her highlight was the Act III duet with Athanael, "Te souvient-il du lumineux voyage?" ("Do you remember our sun-filled journey?"), a kind of odd question, considering he forced her to walk across the desert to reach the convent and arrived practically dead on her feet.
Of the other characters, tenor Jean-Francois Borras stood out as Nicias, an old friend of Athanael's, nicely filling out a rather under-written role. Soprano Deanna Breiwick had a strong Met debut as La Charmeuse, performing at a party chez Nicias. Soprano France Bellemare (also making a debut) as Crobyle and mezzo Megan Marino did well as parts of the Nicias household.
Conducting the Met orchestra, Emmanuel Villaume brought French style and a sense of urgency to the score--a good reminder than opera means more than Puccini and Verdi.
There are six additional performances of THAIS, on November 15, 18, 22, 25 and 28; and December 2. Curtain times vary: complete schedule here. Running time: 3 hours and 16 minutes, including two intermissions.
Tickets begin at $25; for more information or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or visiting www.metopera.org/groups.
Same-day $25 rush tickets for all performances of THAIS are available on a first-come, first-served basis on the Met's website. Tickets will go on sale for performances Monday-Friday at noon, matinees four hours before curtain, and Saturday evenings at 2pm. For more information on rush tickets, click here.