Saturday, January 24, 2009


Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 25th of January 2009 at
3 pm



MASSENET: Thaïs, opera in three acts
Thaïs............................. Renée Fleming
Nicias........................... Michael Schade
Athanaël........................ Thomas Hampson
Palémon........................ Alain Vernhes
Metropolitan Opera Chorus & Orch/Jesús López-Cobos

We all know the Meditation from this opera, with its violin solo, but nothing else (and I have played my recording of the whole opera many times, and while I have been putting this posting together). Still, it is not minimalist music of the tuneless glassy kind, and under the analysis heading you will find details of the music, and the Metropera archives are particularly rich and generous for this opera, based on a novel by Anatole France.

The courtesan Thaïs is a vivacious lady of pleasure who lives in luxury in Alexandria; but after meeting the veracious cenobite monk Athanaël, who comes out of the Egyptian desert to convert her, she searches for a deeper meaning to life, and becomes a Christian; the hapless monk falls in love with her, and therein lies the tragedy.

Jules Massenet is best known for composing Manon (set in France) and Werther (Germany), passionate operas about fatal obsessive love. Thaïs continues this theme in Egypt (early in the Christian era), where decadent pagans inhabit the cities and austere monks live in the desert, as hermits or as coenobites (in monastic communities).

The story mingles passionate sensuality with ascetic spirituality, and the tension increases as the two protagonists move from the opposite ends of this spectrum and never find true human love with each other along the way to the other end. The 'religious meditation' (a 'symphonie' or intermezzo in Act 2) is where her conversion begins. Her mansion is destroyed and Athanaël takes her to a convent, but by this time he is hopelessly in love with her. In the end she dies (like Massenet's and Puccini's Manon Lescaut), leaving her would-be lover distraught. She tells him deliriously that she is now in Heaven, knowing true spiritual love and experiencing exquisite bliss, and she can see God. He denies the existence of Heaven and insists that the only real love is between two human beings, and he loves her, and she belongs to him (possessive obsessive love of the worst sort).

I have the Decca recording (1973) on three black discs. A remarkable coincidence has struck me: in the two versions Renée is the obligatory name for Thaïs (Doria, Fleming), Michael for Nicias (Michel Sénéchal, Michael Schade), and the conductor has to be Jesus (Etcheverry, Lopez-Cobos).

Massenet composed many other operas, and the ones I have on microgroove discs are: Le Cid (Placido!), Esclarmonde (with Joan, and I saw her in this in London, the only time I was in the same theatre as her in my whole life), Werther (Gedda and Victoria the angel), Manon (sweet Victoria again, but I have saucy Anna Netrebko, in short pyjamas, frolicing with Rolando, on video!), La Navarraise (Marilyn and Placido), Cendrillon (Frederica as Cinderella), Le Jongleur de Notre-Dame (a juggler, not the hunchback), Don Quichotte (Régine Crespin, Giaurov, Bacquier); and I have heard Chérubin (Cherubino, the sequel to The Marriage of Figaro).

My personal interest in this subject is that I have spent my life studying these eastern monks, and I have just taken time off from translating one of them. I have also visited two Coptic monasteries in the Egyptian desert. If you are interested, see Syriac Mysticism at:

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