Edinburgh International Festival 2011 (4) – Luxurious beauty and languid atmosphere in Massanet’s Thaïs

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Massenet,Thaïs:  Soloists, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Edinburgh Festival Chorus, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Usher Hall, 18.8.2011 (SRT)

Thaïs – Erin Wall (sop)
Athanaël – Quinn Kelsey (bar)
Nicias – Eric Cutler (ten)
Palémon – Stefano Palatchi (bar)
Crobyle – Sarah-Jane Brandon (sop)
Myrtale – Clara Mouriz (mezzo)

I’m a huge fan of Massenet – though not, perhaps, as great a fan as the late Earl of Harewood, to whose memory this concert was, quite rightly, dedicated – but I’ve never been able fully to come to terms with Thaïs. The story with its heady blend of religious and sexual fervour has always felt self-indulgent to me. The title character is meant to be a legendary temptress who converts to Christianity, but so much of her back story is omitted that her transformation feels too easy to be convincing. A far greater problem, however, comes with the character of Athanaël, surely the most unappealing male lead in all of French opera: a religious zealot who determines to procure the conversion of Thaïs, whether she wants it or not, drives her half to death in penance and then admits on her death-bed that he actually lusted after her all along!

Luckily this load of claptrap is accompanied with some luscious music, most famously the great Méditation, played here with fantastic panache by leader James Clark, who wasn’t afraid to milk the schmaltz for every drop without losing the sure touch of French style. In fact, the whole RSNO was on fantastic form all night: the languid woodwinds, so important in Massenet’s depiction of faux-Orientalism, painted a picture of luxurious beauty and languid atmosphere, while the quintet of horns that accompanied Athanaël’s address to Alexandria rang out with strength and vigour. The strings, too, did a great job of painting each scene convincingly, be it the emaciated expanses of the desert or the hedonistic attractions of the city. Only the off-stage moments, such as Athanaël’s visions and the night-music at the beginning of Act 2, Scene 2 felt flat and lacking in atmosphere, though this may be more to do with the limitations of a concert performance. Andrew Davis’ direction certainly kept the whole thing moving, though even he couldn’t prevent some of the individual lines being swamped in the big ensembles.

The singing was solid, led by an exceptional Thaïs from Erin Wall. Her lustrous, gleaming soprano had just the right colour for the legendary beauty of the courtesan but she portrayed a winning sense of vulnerability in the first scene of Act 2 when we first see Thaïs’ private reflections on growing old and losing her powers. The mirror aria showed the character’s brittle insecurity through exceptional runs and leaps, before she then pulled off the impossible feat of making Thaïs’ transition to the religious penitent almost convincing, and her duet with Athanaël at the oasis was lovely. After scaling the heights of the death scene she richly deserved the standing ovation she was given at the end.

The rest of the cast were satisfying if not quite as convincing. Any baritone would struggle to make Athanaël a believable character, and for all his skill Quinn Kelsey didn’t manage it. He has a strong, warm sounding lyric baritone which blends well in ensembles and gives Athanaël a more rounded, humane sound, but he lacked the power to convince as the rugged desert ascetic. Likewise, Eric Cutler’s light, bright tenor was beautiful and sensuous, but too light for this role and at times he struggled to make himself heard. A little recompense came from a delightful pair of flirts in Crobyle and Myrtale, though the Enchantress of Stacey Tappan sounded as though she could have done with a longer warm-up. Despite all my reservations this was still an evening worth hearing for the excellent contribution of the orchestra and a star turn from Wall, though I won’t be rushing to see it in a theatre any time soon.

Simon Thompson