Thaïs in Helsinki: An 80 Year Wait

FinlandFinland Massenet Thaïs Soloists, Finnish National Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Mikko Franck (conductor). Finnish National Opera, Helsinki. 30.1.2013 (GF)


Thaïs Sabina Cvilak
Athanaël Jaakko Kortekangas
Nicias Luc Robert
Crobyle Tove Åman
Myrtale Ann-Marie Heino
Palémon Hannu Forsberg
Albine Sari Nordqvist
Servant Marko Puustinen


Directed by Nicola Raab
Sets and costumes by Johann Engels
Lighting design by Linus Fellbom
A production of the Göteborg Opera in 2010

Thaïs was the 25th of Massenet’s forty operas and for many years one of his most popular and most often played and until 1956 it was a constant part of the repertoire at the Paris Ópera. Since then it has been overshadowed by Manon and even more by Werther. It seems though that there is something of a Thaïs renaissance at the moment and what triggered it was obviously the Göteborg (Gothenburg) production in 2010. It has since been transferred to Sevilla and Valencia in 2012, in both cases with Placido Domingo as Athanaël (please note that this is another baritone role!), and in 2014 it will also be seen in Los Angeles, also here with Domingo. And just now the Finnish National Opera also stages the same production – in other words within less than five years the Raab – Engels – Fellbom team has planted their creation in five different opera houses.

I didn’t see the production in Göteborg but having seen the second performance in Helsinki (I missed the premiere five days earlier due to other assignments) I fully understand its popularity.

In Helsinki Thaïs hasn’t been seen for eighty years so, as Mikko Franck said when we met in his office a few hours before the performance, very few who saw Helmi Liukkonen as the courtesan back in 1934 are likely to be here tonight. It was for the great Sybil Sanderson that Massenet wrote the title role and she also premiered it on 16 March 1894 in Paris and Mary Garden, no less, sang it at the American premiere in New York in 1907. Thaïs, who also is an actress, is the central figure in the sinful life that has invaded Alexandria and the monk Atnanaël, who once in his youth also wanted to meet her but was saved by God’s intervention, decides to visit her now to save her soul. His fellow monks warn him, but to no avail. He meets her in her abundantly luxurious apartment and manages to talk her into leaving her sinful life, get rid of all her belongings and go to a convent. Athanaël brings her there and leaves but realizes that he loves her and returns to the convent where Thaïs is dying.

It is a sad story and with Massenet at his most lachrymose at times this opera can be unbearably weepy, but Mikko Franck is not sentimentally inclined and skilfully avoids the sugar traps – without in any way playing down the sentiments of the opera. The musical highlights are lovingly cared for, not least the well known Meditation, between the two scenes of act II. Jukka Merjanen played the violin solo with beautiful tone and the effect of this piece is further enhanced when hearing it in its context where an unseen and wordless chorus is heard towards the end. I have had many opportunities through the years to praise the playing of the FNO orchestra and the conducting of Mikko Franck who, by the end of this season leaves his posts at the FNO. The premiere of the double bill Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Pagliacci on 17 April will be their last new production together.

I have already touched upon the production briefly and it is brilliantly conceived in a sparse way. An empty table presides at the front of the stage from the outset and the Cenobite monks arrive through a system of stairs, which remain throughout the first act. The third act is bleak with a kind of open air theatre on the turntable, with a group of people sitting in frozen positions. They turn out to be Athanaël’s fellow monks. The internal drama becomes so much more exposed when there is very little sets and props to distract.

Very much contrasting to this scantiness is the first scene of the second act, taking place in Thaïs’s palace. the stage picture is contracted to a cube, representing Thaïs’s luxurious living room, crammed with furniture, drapery, cut-glass chandeliers, gold … it’s so too-much of everything and the power of Athanaël’s conviction and persuasive powers to induce Thaïs to leave all this for a bare cell in a convent is astonishing. Her transformation is graphically depicted when she undresses and stands there in a simple whitish chemise, her palace disappears into darkness and all of a sudden she is standing on a stage, a simple spotlight on her and she is surrounded by the empty tiers of a theatre. All this takes place during the Meditation and towards the end she kneels and bows her head. Brilliant! Full marks for Nicola Raab and Johann Engels.

Full marks also for the singing of the two main characters. Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak sports a silvery, delicate soprano voice that initially made me wonder whether she would have the necessary heft for the big dramatic outbursts. My misgivings turned out to be completely groundless. When needed she switched on the turbo overdrive and rang out impressively with power and brilliance worthy an Isolde. Just as impressive was Jaakko Kortekangas as Athanaël, a role that is just as big and strenuous as the title role. A splendid actor too, as he amply demonstrated in last year’s Vec Makropulos, he made Athanaël a moving and in the end deeply tragic character. Both singers were at their dramatic and vocal heights in the third act, in particular the ecstatic final duet.

All the other roles are more or less secondary, even Nicias, Athanaël’s former friend and Thaïs’s lover. He was glowingly sung – but not without a slight wobble – by the Canadian tenor Luc Robert, who last October was a good Faust at the Estonian National Opera. Hannu Forsberg was a sonorous Palémon and Sari Nordqvist sang the Abbess with distinction in the last act.

All in all this was a deeply engaging Thaïs, musically as well as scenically.

Göran Forsling