Slipped into the programme book for the Teatro alla Scala’s new production of Thaïs was a glossy double-sided flier featuring works of art depicting the Temptation of St Anthony: Felicien Rops’s painting of a naked woman smiling provocatively on a crucifix; and the gruesome demons in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. Both images inspired Olivier Py’s staging which promised provocation – audiences were forewarned about scenes of nudity – and opened with a topless dancer clinging to a neon cross on the roof of a toytown church. Two elderly ladies walked out after the second scene. I’d like to think they were disappointed.

Marina Rebeka (Thaïs) and Lucas Meachem (Athanaël)
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Py’s production, featuring sets and costumes by Pierre André Weitz and lighting by Bertrand Killy, is tame. Alexandria’s “house of sin” is a two-level, roll on–roll off contraption with dancers writhing in their tiny dressing rooms. Bold red letters spell out the opening text of Dante’s Inferno: “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura” (Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a dark forest), not an inappropriate one as Thaïs makes a fleeting appearance in Dante’s Second Circle of Hell. Wheels of red lights rotate in the background, like a demonic fairground ride. A male dancer in a spangly scarlet jacket seems to represent Temptation while La Charmeuse, the singer who has a coloratura intermezzo in Act 2’s divertisesment, is slipped into a skeleton bodysuit, bedecked with red chiffon. The dancers are comfortable in their semi-naked posturing; the singers are more modestly clad, Thaïs dressed more demurely than anyone. When she douses the set with confetti “paraffin” to burn her house and possessions, cardboard flames pop up.

Lucas Meachem (Athanaël), Marina Rebeka (Thaïs) and company
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The monk Athanaël – aka Anthony – spends a lot of time praying and averting his gaze from such obscenities. His Cenobite pals are besuited like Salvation Army officers, doling out bread and soup in the first scene. When Athanaël persuades Thaïs to give up her sinful life and convert, they cross a brick courtyard “desert” and he delivers her to the Sallies. Jesus wants her for a Sunbeam.

Valentina Pluzhnikova (Albine), Marina Rebeka (Thaïs) and chorus
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Ivo Bauchiero’s choreography for the divertissement is largely restricted to armography, denied space by the hulking set. The famous Méditation comes off much better, here a sinuous pas de deux to close the first half of the production, beautifully danced by Beatrice Carbone and Gioacchino Starace, sensitive rather than sensationalist. Where Py does let rip – trees glowing red, dancers wearing grotesque animal heads, flames flickering during Athanaël’s sexual fantasy about Thaïs – it’s an indication of what might have been. 

Musically, things were on much surer footing, spurred on by the inspirational conducting of Lorenzo Viotti. He clearly adores Massenet’s luscious score, having strong childhood memories of a Pier Luigi Pizzi staging at La Fenice conducted by his father, Marcello Viotti. The young conductor gave the brass their head – big, bold playing – but also revelled in the perfumed strings in the gauzy softer moments.

Marina Rebeka (Thaïs)
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The cast was solid rather than knockout, the exception being the terrific bright-toned tenor Giovanni Sala as Nicias, here as much Thaïs’ pimp as her lover. Sala threw himself into the master of ceremonies role with relish. In-Sung Sim sang a sonorous Palémon, Cenobite father, and Federica Guida demonstrated a fine trill and vocal agility as La Charmeuse. Lucas Meachem was an effective Athanaël. His is not a glamorous baritone, but it was always vocally secure, with plenty of righteous heft.

Giovanni Sala (Nicias)
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Marina Rebeka has experience in the title role, performing it last year at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo. Her soprano can be cold and steely at the top, and her lower register tended to get lost last night, but there was much beautiful singing too, especially when refining her voice to a pianissimo. Her singing of the “mirror” aria, “Dis-moi que je suis belle”, when Thaïs muses on the emptiness of her life, showed poise. She didn’t seem entirely at ease with the role dramatically early on – more imperious than sexy – but played the latter half of the opera, when Thaïs converts to Christianity, with touching sincerity. Like Py’s production, not a Thaïs to set pulses racing, but a very respectable one.