The fruits of composers’ pens are sometimes called their “children.” In the case of Massenet’s operas, it’s more like a galaxy of women. Ariane, Cendrillon, Cléopâtre, Esclarmonde, Grisélidis, Hérodiade, Manon, Méduse, Sapho, Thèrèse, Thaïs… the long list of works that Massenet named after his leading women may be unique in all of opera.

Lucas Meachem (Athanaël) © Cory Weaver
Lucas Meachem (Athanaël)
© Cory Weaver

The dates of Massenet’s Thaïs – composed in 1894 and revised in 1898 – place it in the middle of the composer’s 30-plus operatic creations. Taking a popular novel by Anatole France and adapting it for the stage, the resulting creation didn’t quite convey the book’s biting irony about a monk whose “saintly” actions in attempting the Christian conversion of the courtesan Thaïs come from a decidedly questionable place. Massenet’s opera poses challenges for directors today; even with a willing suspension of disbelief, it’s hard to get past some of the treacly conversion and death scene business in Thaïs; think of how problematic it is to stage a satisfactory ending of Gounod’s Faust these days – it’s the same challenge here.

Nevertheless, we should be thankful for Thaïs, because it gave Massenet material from which to compose a sumptuous score replete with sensuality and color. And then there’s the “Méditation” – it seems that Massenet recognized a good tune when he had one. Introduced during Act Two when Thaïs begins to undergo her conversion from a life of debauchery to one of atonement, the melody reappears numerous times later on – almost to the point of overkill. (Thankfully, in a production as artistically fine as this Minnesota Opera one, the “Méditation” goes down far better than in the performances we’re typically subjected to hearing.)

Zenon Dance Company © Cory Weaver
Zenon Dance Company
© Cory Weaver

Visually, the Minnesota Opera production was quite stunning, with highly effective set and costume designs by Lorenzo Cutùli and staging by director Andrea Cigni. Vocally, the performance was just as successful. Soprano Kelly Kaduce was impressive in the role of Thaïs, having great stage and vocal presence. What’s more, she nailed every single one of the high notes in the vocally challenging score. Kaduce was able to make the transformation of Thaïs from sinner to saint nearly believable (the Louis Gallet libretto doesn’t make this very easy, unfortunately).

As the Cenobite monk Athanaël, baritone Lucas Meachem was equally impressive. His presentation was authoritative and his timbre was excellent. He made the most of the occasions when he and Thaïs were singing together, with their voices blending beautifully. As the polar opposite of the monk, the nobleman Nicias represents Athanaël’s own alter ego. Tenor Gérard Schneider played the foil brilliantly, convincingly portraying the sybarite Nicias in way that made you want to forget all about the spiritual and succumb to the pleasures of easy living. Moreover, Schneider managed to make us really care about the character – something that isn’t particularly easy with this role.

Lorenzo Cutùli's set design © Cory Weaver
Lorenzo Cutùli's set design
© Cory Weaver

Of the supporting cast, one noteworthy standout was Nadia Fayad who sang the dual roles of Myrtale and Albine. She was particularly accomplished in the latter – a terrific voice that conveyed both authority and caring in the mother superior’s interactions with Thaïs. William Clay Thompson’s Palémon portrayal was less distinctive. Between the trim beard and the Cardinal Richelieu-like colors of his vestments, this conception of the lead monk seemed a little off the mark (along with Thompson having a few problems with pitch in Act One). Likewise, Jeni Houser as the Charmeuse in Act Two seemed to have a bit of trouble hitting some of the high notes. But even with these minor drawbacks, these singers supported the leads effectively.

The chorus and orchestra of the Minnesota Opera were excellent under the direction of Christopher Franklin, with tight ensemble. Violinist Allison Ostrander was outstanding in the “Méditation” melody every time it came around. As for the ballet scenes – which are arguably more important in this opera than in many others – I was impressed that all of Massenet’s music was performed; more typically one gets half the ballet music or less in stage productions. The troupe was rather small (I counted seven dancers having significant activity), which didn’t really do the big numbers full justice. And while the “static” choreography was definitely reminiscent of Egypt of the period (or rather, what Parisian choreographers of the late 19th century would have envisioned it to be), at times I wished for a bit more spark in the dance moves.

Zenon Dance Company © Cory Weaver
Zenon Dance Company
© Cory Weaver

Lastly, mention should be made of Marcus Dilliard’s highly effective use of lighting in this production. The atmospherics within the monastery were cold and claustrophobic while the palace scenes were bathed in warm yellows and golds. In these and other instances the lighting became as much a part of the story as the sets and the singing, which made the effects quite special indeed.

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