Thaïs, a Valencian Athanaël Festival

SpainSpain Jules Massenet, Thaïs: Soloists, Orchestra Comunitat Valenciana, Chorus Generalitat Valenciana, Patrick Fournillier (conductor), Valencia’s Palau de Les Arts, 31.3.2012 (JMI)

Production: Gothenburg Opera
Direction: Nicola Raab
Sets and Costumes: Johan Engels
Lighting: Linus Fellbom

Thaïs: Malin Byström
Athanaël:  Plácido Domingo
Nicias: Paolo Fanale
Palemon: Gianluca Buratto
Crobyle: Micaela Oeste
Myrtale: Marina Rodríguez-Cusí
Albine: María José Suárez

Thaïs: Picture courtesy Palau de Les Arts, © Tato Baeza

Any theater intending to stage Massenet’s Thaïs knows that an exceptional soprano is needed. Without one, the opera can scarecely succeed. There has never been an abundance of outstanding sopranos and that’s no different nowadays. That must be one reason that the opera is so rarely put on by the big houses. In recent years, only New York’s Metropolitan dared (2008) and they had Renée Fleming, fresh off her successful European concert-tour with the same opera. It is true that the character of Athanaël is as or even more important than Thaïs, but no theater will start casting any other role before Thaïs. Except Thomas Hampson in that Met-production, the rôle of the monk Athanaël has not been sung by star baritones in years. In my files, the only names of some significance are those of Gerald Finley (in a concert performance) and Lado Ataneli.

But now Plácido Domingo has cast his eyes on Athanaël and if ‘Superman’ is going to star, he cannot be anything but the protagonist of the opera. Say about Domingo what you will, nobody could question his artistic intelligence. And, of course, his decision to take the character of the monk has proven a success, both popular and artistically. Domingo is now the true star of Thaïs.

The production by German director Nicola Raab comes from Gothenburg, where it was premiered a couple of years ago. The production has remarkable sets and bright and colorful costumes. The set sits on a revolving stage, showing a building with two side stairs for the scenes of the monks. As the stage turns, a beautiful theater is revealed: the center of the triumphs of Thaïs. In act 2 Thaïs’s apartment is a small module in the center of this theater stage, filled with a flurry of furniture and fabrics. Only ruins of the theater are left in the third act, giving view of a cyclorama at the back, with desert motifs. The Cenobites’ dress, too, is tattered now—as if the spiritual crisis had passed on from Athanaël, or indeed the world, to the entire sect. The continuous rotation of the platform during the final act is a little tiresome. The presence of Thaïs in the final scene, in her wedding dress and crown, is a surprise and seems to correspond more to one of Athanaël’s visions than what the libretto suggests. The direction of crowd scenes is quite good and there are two great actors on stage in the main roles.

Conductor Patrick Fournillier is a real guarantee in this kind of repertoire, as he has proved many times. His reading has been really good, if somewhat impersonal at times. He is a favorite of Domingo’s to work with, particularly in French opera. The orchestra proved its high quality in Fournillier’s fine, slightly impersonal reading and the chorus excelled.

available at Amazon
J.Massenet, Thaïs,
Y.Abel / Bordeaux Aquitaine NO
Fleming, Hampson, Sabatini, Devellereau, Palatchi et al.

Swedish soprano Malin Byström sang Thaïs, have performed the rôle in Gothenburg already. She certainly has the opera singer-as-super model look to make a perfect Thaïs. The timber of her light-lyric soprano is not quite as attractive timbre, metallic top notes and shouted high D-s. She looked uncomfortable during the mirror aria “Dis moi que je suis belle”, but in the second part, when she is the repentant sinner, I found her performance much more convincing. It was then that she proved that she can move through her singing, limitations at the top notwithstanding.

Placido Domingo may have lost his top notes, but that does not make him a natural baritone. But then he is a consummate artist and his voice has a freshness that’s downright insulting for his age. His scenic demeanor requires some suspense of disbelief, but we muster that, since he continues to be a true stage animal, ever singing with power and conviction. No one knows his instrument better than he does, and he never fakes being a baritone. Instead he sings in the most natural way, and takes his shortcomings at the bottom of the range in stride. To me Placido Domingo has in any case long stopped being a tenor, a baritone, a conductor, or a director. He is simply a GREAT ARTIST. Just like this, in capital letters.

Filling in for Celso Albelo Italian tenor Paolo Fanale sang the part of Nicias: a light and attractive voice, but poorly projected. The supporting roles Gianluca Buratto as Palemon. Micaëla Oeste (Crobyle), Marina Rodríguez-Cusí (Myrtale) and Maria Jose Suarez (Albine) were all well cast. From curtain rising to curtain closing, they were background material—with the standing ovations and thrown flowers all aiming only for one man: Superman.

José Mª Irurzun