Massenet's Thaïs doesn't come close to getting the airtime of his more famous operas, but it has two big assets: a rich score dripping with sensuality and a title role that provides an excellent star vehicle for a soprano, containing a series of high profile arias but also space to rest between them. In their revival of John Cox's 2008 production, the Met took full advantage of those assets, without fully making the case for the opera as a whole.

David Pittsinger (Polémon, left), Gerard Finley (Athanaël, singing)
© Chris Lee | Metropolitan Opera

Emmanuel Villaume conducted a wonderful account of the score, with impeccable balance and a constant sense of direction: this was music one could have listened to for hours on end. Individual solos were taken with panache, from shorter woodwind quotes to the extended violin solo at the core of Thaïs' most famous passage, the Méditation which marks the heroine's conversion from her life of debauchery to impending sainthood, and whose theme reappears, later, to mark the opposite conversion of the monk Athanaël, who has persuaded Thaïs to renounce her past but succumbs – considerably too late – to what is by now the memory of her charms. Violinist David Chan had the New York audience as mesmerised as they could have hoped for.

Ailyn Pérez did exactly what she should do: walked on stage and took over. From her first breath, the voice caressed, seduced – but, most importantly, demanded attention. I'm not sure that Pérez was actually several decibels louder than everyone else, but she might as well have been: you couldn't stop concentrating fully on her whenever she sang, and were rewarded by the most luscious of timbre, utter security in the high notes and full commitment to the role.

Jean-François Borras (Nicias), Ailyn Pérez (Thaïs)
© Chris Lee | Metropolitan Opera

Jean-François Borras provided good support as an engaging, cheerful Nicias, the last of Thaïs' lovers, but Gerald Finley, as Athanaël, didn't match Pérez's magnetism. His characteristic smoothness of tone was evident and there were times when the strong passions came through – for example, at the critical moment when Athanaël realises that he will never see Thaïs again. But sparks didn't fly between Finley and Pérez and for much of the time, Finley seemed slightly subdued, which came as a disappointment, especially given that on previous occasions that I've seen him, Finley has been the best thing on stage. Athanaël is, after all, the main protagonist of this opera, the person who actually makes the events happen in the first place, and I wanted to be grabbed by him far more than I was.

The stage direction did not help. Cox's production is visually engaging. He goes for bright colours and high contrast, which works particularly impressively in the desert scenes (the action takes places in and around Alexandria in the early years of Christianity). We got a good sense of the hard light of the desert sun, and the closing tableau for Thaïs' death scene, in which she appears seated on a throne, made up and clothed with the pallor of death, drew gasps from the audience. The somewhat timeless costumes were effective, and Christian Lacroix's costumes for Thaïs were suitably gorgeous. But the word “tableau” tells it all: parts were underacted to a point of being almost static. With limited movement around the stage, and little physical acting, the production gave the sense of a series of tableaux rather than of a living, dramatic portrayal.

Gerald Finley (Athanaël)
© Chris Lee | Metropolitan Opera

Thaïs is a difficult opera in that there is evidence of some divergence of intentions. The storyline of the Anatole France novel – ultra-religious monk converts harlot to sanctity but falls prey to precisely the sins of the flesh that he has castigated her for – is at least bitingly ironic about religious fanaticism and, at most, can be taken as downright anti-clerical. The Catholic Church clearly saw France in this way, placing his entire work on the Index of Forbidden Books. Massenet's music, however, lacks any of that irony – one's sense, at the end, is of Athanaël as a tragic human figure to be sympathised with, rather than a fanatical figure to be deprecated, and we are left decidedly unclear as to how we should feel about Thaïs' saintliness.

It would take a stronger production to make this opera into a thing of dramatic importance. Here, what we had was a delicious evening of lush late romantic music, and a star soprano to remember.