Although it was once hugely popular, gaining nearly 700 performances in Paris up to the mid-20th century, Massanet’s 1894 opera Thaïs is best known today for the famous Méditation for solo violin. The setting and plot offer plenty of opportunity for an excitingly exotic staging, but with the Joan Sutherland Theatre out of commission for seven months for renovation, Opera Australia took the decision to offer two concert performances in the unfamiliar setting of Sydney Town Hall. This curtailment of the dramatic dimension put the music under a rather unforgiving spotlight, but thanks to sterling performances from the leads, the evening was carried.

The libretto, based on a novel by Anatole France, turns the satirical original into a puzzling unromantic romance. Athanaël, a stern caricature of a monk, arrives in Alexandria to persuade the actress/courtesan Thaïs to join an enclosed religious order. There is more than a hint of the Violetta—Alfredo relationship at this early stage; the male protagonist here may attempt to browbeat rather than to woo the eponymous heroine, but despite his religious protestations, his underlying motivation is similar (“Ah, what a glorious conquest you would be,” he revealing says at one point). The defiant line on which Thäis ultimately rejects him in Act 2, scene 1 (“No, I remain Thäis the courtesan. I no longer believe in anything. I want nothing more […] not you, nor your God”) is, like “Sempre libera” (Violetta’s paean to freedom), entirely self-deceiving. Violetta is next seen briefly happy in the relationship she was just scorning, whereas Thäis changes her mind off-stage during the famous Méditation, and reappears as a humble penitent who thereafter follows Athanaël slavishly. The two share a moment of seemingly platonic tenderness in the oasis, and Thäis is immured in the convent. Three weeks later, Athanaël realises he is in lust, and rushes off in time to be beside his now-saintly inamorata’s deathbed.

Such mixtures of sex and religiosity were apparently hot currency in the fin de siècle. A close narrative parallel to the story is found in Oscar Wilde’s unfinished play La sainte Courtisane, while the same author’s Salome also treats a scandalous amour between a sinful woman and a resisting saint. However, the near conjunction of this performance with next month’s Parsifal, another opera in which a sinful temptress is redeemed by a religious hero and dies in penitent bliss, sparked another layer of resonance.

Massenet’s music pales in comparison with Wagner’s infinitely richer score, but there were some points of interest. There was something primal, almost Brucknerian about the opening of the opera, but the modally inflected music in the monks’ community was rather grey (perhaps deliberately so, since Massenet is not holding up the religious life as the ideal, as Wagner does Montsalvat). The injection of colour from harp and alternating woodwind instruments was welcome. Later on, the entry of Thäis herself was heralded by some rather bargain basement orientalism. Elsewhere Massenet's trademark lyricism was in evidence, although only occasionally truly touching.

Liberated from the unforgiving pit in which they usual ply their trade, the Opera Australia Orchestra generally sounded very good, and under the energetic leadership of Guillaume Tourniaire, they mostly achieved a satisfactory balance which allowed the singers through. By comparison with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, the strings in particular seemed somewhat physically stiff and unyielding, perhaps a reflection of their usual performing practices which depend far less on visual reinforcement. The Méditation was played with restrained expressivity by Concertmaster Jun Yi Ma.

The evening belonged to the two leads. Étienne Dupuis was a stunning Athanaël: his ringing baritone had cut and penetration, and he showed himself capable of warmth in quieter passages. Deprived of any opportunity for seductive gestures and the like, Nicole Car’s performance was more plaintive than passionate, but who was complaining given the easy lyricism of her glorious soprano with its easy high notes?

The rest of the cast was accomplished. Nicias, the one-time lover of Thaïs and friend of Athanaël, was played by Simon Kim. His lighter tenor was perfectly suited to the role, and his off-stage serenade was particularly fine. Richard Anderson was a firm presence as the solemn Palémon. As the two slaves sent to spruce up the ascetic Athanaël, Anna-Louise Cole and Anna Yun co-ordinated beautifully in their opening roulades, Cole’s luscious dramatic soprano thereafter complemented by Yun’s cooler mezzo tones in the quartet. Sian Pendry made the most of her limited stage time as the stern abbess Albine. Stand-in Alexander Hargreaves was a fine Servant. The chorus members were their usual reliable selves, and even made an appearance in the Méditation as a vocalise reinforcing the instruments.