The Manhattan School of Music presented an outstanding production of Massenet's Thaïs this past weekend. Artistic Director of the MSM Opera Theater Dona D. Vaughn ensured success by lining up a superb production team that honored the work as to time and place and gave it a focus that would appeal to a modern audience.
Everyone loves a bad girl and no one loves a hypocritical religious extremist. Louis Gallet's libretto, based on a poem and novel by Anatole France, traces two opposing spiritual trajectories. Thaïs, the bad girl, actress and courtesan, becomes a saint and Athanaël, the cenobite monk who converts her to Christianity, becomes overwhelmed by his lust.
The action takes place in Egypt in the 4th c. and Massenet's music skillfully evokes the exoticism through the use of extravagant orchestral color which was well brought out by George Manahan's conducting of the fine student orchestra. The production team deserves a great deal of credit for creating the visual counterpart. The simple set was created by André Barbe for Opéra Montréal and comprised nothing more than a disc on the floor, a vertical eye-shaped element, several columns dropped in from above when needed to create a palace and a pedestal which elevated at plot junctures to indicate the heroine's spiritual elevation. Guy Simard's lighting design went a long way toward creating and changing the atmosphere. Everywhere was seen the "Eye of Horus" a symbol of major importance to the Egyptians.
Mr. Barbe's wildly colorful costumes further emphasized the exoticism and were uniformly flattering to the singers. The communities of monks and nuns wore drab dun colored garb and the "party people" (YOU know, the ones having FUN) looked sexy as all get-out. The appropriate headdresses and wigs by Amy Wright added to the effect. Director Renaud Doucet blocked the scenes effectively.
The night we attended, the eponymous heroine was sung by soprano Rebecca Krynski who looked and sounded marvelous, using her beautiful instrument to good advantage with some lovely phrasing and fine French style. A high point was her consideration of the future loss of her beauty and her fear of death. Just following this was the exquisite "Meditation", a theme which was to recur several more times.
Tenor Aaron Short made a swell Nicias, an old school friend of the monk who had put himself in debt to finance a week of carnal pleasure with our heroine. Absolutely delightful were the antics of Crobyle, sung by soprano Allison Nicholas, and Myrtale, sung by mezzo Elsa Quéron as they mocked the dour monk and changed his drab clothing for something more suited to the palace. Their voices blended charmingly.
Albine, leader of the religious order to which our heroine is consigned, was well sung by mezzo Raehann Bryce-Davis; Palémon, leader of the monks who advises our hero to stay away from worldly people was sung by Brett Vogel. Athanaël was difficult to like at first, being such a disagreeable fanatic with a rather dry voice, but he garnered our sympathy as his suffering increased in Act II.
We continued to explore the Gallic side of MSM the following evening by attending a most compelling recital coordinated by the esteemed Catherine Malfitano which was entitled "Pleurs d'or" and involved 20 third-year vocal students. The first half of the program comprised chansons from the late 19th and early 20th c.--beautiful miniatures by Debussy, Hahn, Duparc, Chausson, Ravel, Fauré, Delibes, Bizet and Massenet. Ms. Malfitano structured the recital to be more than a recital with the singers in mostly formal black attire and wearing masks suggestive of carnevale or Mardi Gras. They sat in chairs facing upstage and each singer stood up for his or her turn and interacted with other singers, lending visual and dramatic interest.
The second half comprised arias from operas by Meyerbeer, Massenet, Bizet, Gounod, Lalo, Thomas, Ravel and others. For this part, masks were removed and the singers sat on either side of the stage, rising only for their own performance. Although it is way too early in their respective careers to say much definitive or predictive about the voices, we will say that every singer connected with his/her material and with the audience. The emotionalism made for an involving evening. We do confess to being somewhat blown away by mezzo Hannah Dishman who sang Bizet's "Chanson d'Avril" and "Nobles seigneurs, salut!" from Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots; by soprano Amanda Grafton who sang Chausson's "Le temps des lilas" and "Voyons, Manon" from Massenet's Manon; and by Michael Anderson whose sweet tenor illuminated Hahn's "Le rossignol des lilas" and "Vainement, ma bien-aimée" from Lalo's Le Roi d'Ys. French diction was mostly good all around. Vive la France!
(c) meche kroop