Massenet’s Thaïs has never been a repertory staple at the Metropolitan Opera, but for the right leading lady the work has been known to make periodical appearance. During the 2008–09 season, the work returned after a 30-year absence in a new production starring the Met's reigning diva number one, Renée Fleming.

No stranger to the lush orchestrations and charged passions of French romantic opera, Fleming took on the role of Thaïs after first seducing audiences as Massenet’s Manon and, with other companies, as Salomé in the composer’s Herodiade and the title role in Charpentier’s Louise. Arrayed in costumes designed specifically for her by noted fashion designer Christian Lacroix, Ms. Fleming looks and sounds amazing as Thaïs. Her instantly recognizable voice is perfectly suited to the courtesan’s music, especially in the moving “mirror aria” of Act II and in the thrilling climax of her death and apotheosis scene.

The titular role is certainly a star turn for sopranos, but many leading baritones (and a few tenors) have likewise been drawn to play Athanaël, the ascetic monk who loses his religion to Thaïs’s charms. In this performance, Thomas Hampson proves to be a terrific Athanaël. Bearded and disheveled from his life of renunciation in the desert, he is a bit too anxious to confront the glamorous courtesan. This zeal to convert Thaïs is a thin cover for his burning obsession to possess her. Singing with a powerful, edgy intensity, Mr. Hampson embodies his character’s internal conflict throughout the performance.

Tenor Michael Schade plays a sympathetic Niceas, singing the role with a clear, direct tone. Like Athanaël, Niceas has fallen hard for Thaïs, but the wealthy playboy harbours no illusions about the nature of his preoccupation. As Thaïs’s cohorts Crobyle and Myrtale, Alyson Cambridge and Ginger Costa-Jackson both make strong impressions with their seductive voices and glances.

John Cox’s production, borrowed by the Met from Lyric Opera of Chicago, captures both the extravagant and banal extremes of opera production. While the desert scenes and the flight from Niceas’s home in Alexandria appear to transpire on a large, ruffled potato chip, Cox’s sets and costumes evoke a vision that is every bit as grand as Massenet’s score. What counts most are the strong vocal performances of the principals and the beautiful, all-in effort by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under the direction of Jésus López-Cobos. Fighting the tendency of lesser directors, Cox’s Thaïs blessedly keeps the curtain down during “The Meditation”, Massenet’s most enthralling and popular melody. Played here with taste and fervor by Met concertmaster David Chan, the well-known melody functions as an interlude and reminder to the viewer that, in spite of its excesses, there are many aspects of Massenet’s opera that should not and cannot be resisted.