Thursday, September 11, 2014


Jules Massenet (1842-1912) THAÏS

Thaïs : Renée Fleming, Athanaël : Thomas Hampson, Nocias : Michael Schade.
New York Metropolitan Opera.  Conductor : Jesús López-Cobos
Scene 1  A coenobite [monastic] settlement in the Thebaid (in the Egyptian western desert)
Athanaël, a monk, reports on his trip to Alexandria, city of sin, where the courtesan and actress Thaïs is all the rage. He confesses to the monks of his community that he was tempted by her in his youth, but now he wants to convert her to the Christian way of life. The elder monk Palemon warns him against involvement in the secular world, but after  a dream of her, he sets out on his mission.
Scene 2  The home of Nicias in Alexandria
Athanaël visits his school-friend Nicias, and meets Thaïs there.
Scene 1 Chez Thaïs
Alone at last! She is away from brutal men and spiteful women. She asks her mirror to reassure her that she is beautiful; but she can not stop thinking that she will grow old and be ugly. She turns to the statue of Venus and prays that she will remain eternally beautiful,
   Athanael enters, quietly praying that her face will appear veiled to him, and the power of her charms will not triumph over his will. She warns him not to love her . He replies that he does indeed love her, but not in the way she means: not the rapture of one night, but never-ending felicity.
   Thaïs is shaken and moved by his words; she weeps and moans; she is afraid of death.
    The voice of Nicias is heard, calling for her to grant him love from her lips for one last time. She asks Athanael to go out and tell him that she hates him, and everything luxurious. Athanael says he will wait outside for her till morning. She becomes hysterical.

Interlude: Religious meditation (solo violin and orchestra)
This is the well-known and much-loved piece from this opera.

Scene 2 Outside the house of Thaïs
She has meditated throughout the night, and before sunrise she comes to Athanael, addressing him as Father,  and declaring that she has taken his words to heart; a light has arisen in her soul, and she has seen the emptiness of pleasure.
    He will take her to the convent of  Mother Albine (who is known to Thaïs as a daughter of the Caesars).
    As a sign of her break with her past, she is instructed to burn down her pleasure palace. However, she would like to take a little ivory-image of Eros with her, as a reminder of her sins against love. It was a gift from Nicias, and hearing this Athanael  explodes with anger and destroys the idol.
   Divertissement (ballet)
   Nicias himself arrives with a throng of revelers; he has won some money at gambling (and he could pay for more time with Thaïs).
    Some of them try to prevent Thaïs and Athanael from leaving, but Nicias distracts them by throwing gold into the air. The monk and the novice nun head for the desert.

We now come to the ironic climax:  the monk had brought the courtesan to God, but now he wants her for himself, as a trophy to hang up in his cell in the desert. He has fallen passionately in love with her. (Sorry if that is a ‘spoiler’ for you.)

Scene 1 An oasis near the convent of Mother Albine
Athanaël has been ruthlessly  pushing the barefooted Thaïs across the desert, all in the name of penance. The sun is ovewhelming her, and she wants to rest. When he sees her feet are bleeding he feels pity for her instead of disgust. He kisses her feet adoringly, and calls her “holy, most holy Thaïs”. She is ready to go on, but he brings water and fruit to refresh her. Her respnse is: “My life is yours, God has entrusted it to you, I belong to you”. He is only too happy to recipocrate, and they experience ineffable sweetness.
   Nuns appear, chanting the Pater noster: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. This is very timely, given the euphoria the couple are feeling.
   He tells Mother Albine that he has brought a precious bee to her hive. Thaïs is welcomed into the community of the White Sisters. She thanks her benefactor, and she bids him Adieu, till they meet in the Celestial City. He now realizes that he may never see her again.

Scene 2  The cenobite settlement (omitted in the 1961 Decca audio recording!)
Three weeks later Athanaël is in despair. After continual prayer, fasting, and flagellation, the physical image of Thaïs haunts him. His attempt to confess to Polémon fails; the elder had told him to stay away from Alexandria and Thaïs, and he thinks that Athanaël is now lost.
  The wayward monk has an erotic dream of the woman he lusts after. Voices tell him she is dying. He decides to go to the convent and steal her from God.

Scene 3  The convent
Thaïs has practised penance for three months, and her purity has made her a saint. She is dying when Athanaël arrives. She reminisces about their journey together, but he now wants her to believe that only earthly life and love are real. As she views Heaven opening, with the prophets, saints, and angels  welcoming her, and while she is delighting in the beatific vision (I see God) and is expiring, he repeatedly exclaims that he loves her. His last word is: Pitié! (Mercy!).

Subtitles will aid our understanding!

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