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Thaïs: Religion Versus Sexuality On an Epic Scale

Ed Rampell: The enticing Thaïs is not only a pagan priestess of Venus, Roman goddess of love, but also a courtesan, renowned beauty, and what may be most offensive of all, the girl’s in show biz, too!
Placido Domingo as Athanael and Nino Machaidze as Thais (Phots: Robert Millard)

Placido Domingo as Athanael and Nino Machaidze as Thais (Phots: Robert Millard)

Thaïs Opera Review

Jules Massenet’s Thaïs is a tale of religion and sexual repression, with baritone Plácido Domingo as Athanaël, a meddler of epic proportions, masquerading as a monk in order to hide his inner psychological conflicts. Finding the Egyptian city of Alexandria to be swept by sin (translation: people are enjoying life), the desert hermit makes it his unsolicited mission (although, like other lunatics pretending to have a higher calling, Athanaël would probably claim “God told me to do it”) to convert the heathen in the form of Thaïs (Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze).

The enticing Thaïs is not only a pagan priestess of Venus, Roman goddess of love, but also a courtesan, renowned beauty, and what may be most offensive of all, the girl’s in show biz, too! Athanaël confesses to a conclave of his co-religionists that in his youth he had lusted after Thaïs -- but, beneath his blather about blasphemy, does he still? Louis Gallet’s libretto, based on Anatole France’s novel, reminded this reviewer of Somerset Maugham’s classic saga Rain, about a demented missionary proselytizing prostitute Sadie Thompson at Pago Pago, and to a lesser extent the relationship between Marlene Dietrich’s cabaret singer and Emil Janning’s professor in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film The Blue Angel.

Tblisi’s stunning Machaidze excels in the title role, which she has the stage presence to pull off, suggesting to your addled critic those Lennon/McCartney lyrics: “Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out, They leave the West behind, And Moscow girls make me sing and shout, That Georgia's always on m-m-my mind!” But beneath Thaïs’ persona of beauty and bluster, she is world weary, as Scene 1, Act II opens in her opulent dressing room or home with the actress singing about her inner doubts. She ponders the treatment she has received over the years from men such as Nicias (Louisiana tenor Paul Groves), and anxious that her beauty will eventually fade, exquisitely sings the “Tell me that I am beautiful” aria.

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Placido Domingo as Athanael and Nino Machaidze as Thais (Phots: Robert Millard)

Placido Domingo as Athanael and Nino Machaidze as Thais (Phots: Robert Millard)

Enter Athanaël, who -- like most men of the cloth (or hair shirt, as the case may be) -- exploits her uncertainties and fears, promising Thaïs that an eternal love awaits her. All she has to do is give up her fame, fortune and libido. As both lead characters have divided selves and are full of conflicting needs, the three-acter is full of dramatic tension: Who will succumb to whom? Like Claggert in Herman Melville’s novella and Benjamin Britten’s operatic version of Billy Budd presented earlier this season by LA Opera, Athanaël seeks to destroy the object of his desire in order to deny his own attraction and lust. The story perfectly illustrates the struggle between Eros and Thanatos -- the life and death forces -- that Sigmund Freud identified in Civilization and Its Discontents.

Massenet’s music, conducted by Patrick Fournillier, is often somber, although a lovely use of haunting harps suggests the saga’s heavenly themes. But in addition to the subject matter of sinister religious fanaticism, this production has some of the best sets this opera aficionado has ever seen onstage. Indeed, working with scenery designer Johan Engels, in her LA Opera debut director Nicola Raab of Germany has conjured a highly cinematic sensibility. Along with unindicted co-conspirator lighting designer Linus Fellbom of Sweden, Engels and Raab use filmic devices such as split screen (right after the curtain lifts), scenic transitions, chiaroscuro and more. Whereas the recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire had Spartan sets that failed to evoke Nawlins’ fabled ambiance, Thaïs’ sets (as well as Engels’ costumes) have an eye popping optical opulence.

Kudos to this creative team, led by that ever-present Madrid maestro, Plácido, who, in contrast to Desiderata, does not “Go placidly amidst the noise and haste” and fails to: “remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others,” for this overzealous penitent doesn’t recognize that even the sensuous and worldly too have their story. This version of Thaïs is opera par exemplar, and the very epitome of psychosis parading around as piety by those who stick their noses into others’ business, ever-terrified that someone somewhere is having fun. LA Opera’s season goes out with a bang with this breathtaking Thaïs.

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Thaïs is being performed May 29, June 4 and June 7 at 7:30 p.m. and June 1 at 2:00 p.m. at LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell