Massenet’s “Werther” and “Manon” are regularly performed, but only the most ardent attender of recherche opera festivals is likely to have first-hand knowledge of the composer’s 23 other operas. However, a production as overwhelmingly pleasurable as director-designer David Fielding’s revival of his positively erotic conflagration of faith and flesh, “Thais” — an opera not so much rarely as barely performed in the U.K. in modern times — could cause a revolution: The Massenet revival starts here.
The combination of tone and content has always been regarded as combustible at best, tasteless at worst. That’s hardly surprising when the story unites and contrasts the unflinching religious ardor and repressed passion of a zealous monk with the allure of a courtesan who goes from porn to born-again Christianity. If that scenario weren’t enough to inflame the high-minded (which it did after its 1894 premiere) the music — lush, plush and dangerous to know — did the rest.
With the exception of a handful of works remembered solely for their overtures, most of opera’s greatest hits are sung. Yet the most famous episode of “Thais” is the “Meditation,” which, paradoxically, is both unusually well-known and unsung. It’s the interlude, a famous showpiece for violin and orchestra, written to conjure the unseen religious conversion of the heroine and, more prosaically, to cover a scene change. Not here. Fielding uses its rhapsodic violin line over harp arpeggios as the aural backdrop to a scene of the heroine’s forsaking of flesh in favor of faith via a Christ figure leading her toward redemption.
In keeping with the rest of Fielding’s staging, the bold gesture is dramatically effective. In an opera ricocheting between piety and excess, that suggests he goes to extremes, but in fact his success stems from his tight rein on the proceedings.
The opening monastery scene is nicely austere, with an immense table leading upstage to a giant cross cut out of the back wall, balanced on either side by serried ranks of comfortless black and white beds. The pale gray and white stripes of the walls and ceiling are a clean, modern echo of the lines of ancient Egyptian designs — the original libretto’s era and location — but, as the following scene makes clear, events have been relocated to contemporary Los Angeles.
Out go queasy, quasi-Egyptian design motifs beloved of pompous “Aida” revivals; in comes a Hockney pool backdrop behind the cross, palm trees and the wealthy but worthless party crowd going beachside with Thais in a leather bodice, big hair and little else.
Not too many sopranos could get away with that costume, but at around 5 feet tall, sleek Anne-Sophie Duprels is a petite powerhouse. The role has enough opportunities for luscious vocalizing for Renee Fleming to have recorded it; if Duprels doesn’t equal her for creaminess of tone, her fearless, powerful voice rings with conviction. And as her act-three duet “Baigne d’eau” proves, she can caress a phrase with real tenderness.
As Athanael, Thais’s nemises, Ashley Holland is the most fervent of monks. Troubled by dreams of this woman he met before joining the brotherhood, he is determined to rid himself of her image by saving her and persuading her to see the light.
His fellow monk Palemon (an impressive U.K. debut from relaxed young South African bass Vuyani Mlinde) is unconvinced. So is his erstwhile friend, now playboy, Nicias (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, all comic, moneyed, hip-hop swagger), who doesn’t believe for a moment that Thais will be won over.
In plot terms she shouldn’t be. There’s precious little in the way of dramatic tension to make Athanael’s case beyond his pleading, and Holland is a stoic performer. But that is to reckon without Massenet’s lustrous music and the unleashed power of Holland’s burnished baritone.
He easily rides the wave of sound produced by Massenet’s opulent orchestrations. Conductor Martin Andre’s 50-piece orchestra sounds almost twice its size as it floods the auditorium with controlled, exotic wind writing, hints of Far Eastern-style percussion and post-Wagnerian duets of mounting intensity.
Few will be unmoved by the thrillingly played and sung climax, awash with emotion. Athanael has finally understood that his religious zeal was really misplaced physical desire, but the now sainted Thais sees God and dies.
Riven with contradiction — it suggests an equality between religion and sexual desire — the music is led by the shameless third appearance of the Meditation theme, this time in the voices as well as the orchestra.
It ought not to work — and in a less well-sung or overblown production it wouldn’t. But excitingly pushing the Grange Park Opera team to its limits, Fielding’s rigorous direction ironically proves that shamelessness can be almost indecently enjoyable. Like the hero and heroine, this production deserves to travel.