Jules Massenet’s “Thais” should have been a Cecil B. DeMille movie. First staged in 1894, it’s the story of a pious and uptight monk who saves the soul of a beautiful courtesan, only to be done in by his pent-up lust. Three decades later, W. Somerset Maugham shifted the creaky scenario to the tropics in his play, “Rain.” Critics aren’t always kind to these tales of easy role reversals, and “Thais” has the added liability of being set in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 4th century A.D. In other words, the opera falls into that irresistible category of so bad it’s good — an assessment John Cox’s tacky new production at the Met does nothing to mitigate.
That Susan Sontag never mentioned “Thais” in her “Notes on Camp” essay is a major omission that can only be attributed to the Massenet opera’s nearly four-decade hiatus from the Met stage. Its first revival there was in 1978 when Beverly Sills and Sherrill Milnes essayed these two ships who cross at night in the desert sands. That production was borrowed from the San Francisco Opera, while the Cox staging comes from the Lyric Opera of Chicago but could have been designed in the 1970s as well. Did someone say “disco”? Even the palm trees here are metallic.
Nothing in Cox’s production is as delightfully awful as having Sills, outfitted in a body stocking, dance onstage to the “Meditation” interlude in act two. But Cox does give us a finale in which this season’s Thais, Renee Fleming, is seated in a high-back wooden chair on what appears to be a Roman Catholic altar as horny monk Athanael (Thomas Hampson) begs her not to die.
For her death scene, Fleming is decked out in one of those overconstructed off-white gowns that look like something Christian Siriano whipped up for “Project Runway.” Actually, Fleming’s costumes were designed by another Christian, Lacroix, and the newly svelte soprano wears his clothes fabulously. Her hair is also fierce — like Nicole Kidman’s in her early Tom Cruise phase on the red carpet. Dated, yes, but remember this is 4th century. That’s a fact one might forget since Fleming looks so 1980s and most of her male admirers are donning tuxedos while Athanael has been attired to resemble Charlton Heston in his 39th day in the Paramount desert.
How is the singing? Fleming gives a pretty but small-scale performance. It’s as if they sent in an ingenue like Manon — another of Massenet’s material girls — to play a woman. Hampson, on the other hand, dominates his character to achieve real pathos when he realizes too late that sending Thais to the convent means he will never see her again. Of course, he does see her again for that ludicrous final scene, but by then the nuns have speed-tracked this repentant courtesan to sainthood.
“Thais” enters the Met repertory just as its much-acclaimed Robert Lepage production of Hector Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust” leaves it. Great art is nice but true camp is a lot more fun. On Dec. 20, a live transmission of “Thais” from the Met goes to select movie theaters nationwide.