With lustrous singing by Pérez, Met’s “Thaïs” eventually sees the light

Sun Nov 12, 2017 at 12:17 pm
Gerald Finley as Athanaeel and Ailyn Perez in the title role of Massenet's "Thaïs" at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Chris Lee

Gerald Finley as Athanaël and Ailyn Pérez in the title role of Massenet’s “Thaïs” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Chris Lee

Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. is an odd time to open the run of an opera, but that’s when the Metropolitan Opera scheduled the first performance of its current revival of Thaïs.

Massenet’s opera tells of the monk Athanaël (baritone Gerald Finley) who converts the beautiful Alexandrine courtesan Thaïs (soprano Ailyn Pérez) to Christianity, only to realize that he is lost in lust for her when she has unveiled a beatific soul. Thaïs is more heard of than heard and this was only the 74th performance at the Met, a minuscule number for a famous opera more than 100 years old.

The challenge is casting the title role, which has several important phrases that lie well above the standard top of a soprano’s tessitura; like Mozart’s Queen of the Night, there are a limited number of singers who can actually hit the notes with the fullness and dynamics that the music demands. Even more, the B-flats and D’s above the staff fulfill musical and expressive purposes. They come at logical points in the middle and at the end of phrases and must be sung as part of an articulated vocal line, a different challenge than preparing a run of arpeggios.

The 2008 debut of this production (which uses Massenet’s revised score) originated at the Lyric Opera of Chicago with Renée Fleming paired with Thomas Hampson. She could hit all the notes, and so can Pérez.

The soprano’s sound was rounded and lustrous all afternoon, the sheer loveliness emphasized by the feeling that she was extending sustained notes just a little longer so the ear could linger, before her vibrato kicked in.

There was no strain to her high notes. Rather, there was a certain display of muscularity that elicited the intuitive excitement of being in the presence of pure power. And that was secondary to her long phrases, full of small inflections that showed character and mood, from the confident flirtations of “Qui te fiat si sévère” to the sublime focus and gentleness of her last lines in “C’est Toi, Mon Père.”

“Dis-moi que je suis belle,” the Act II “Mirror” aria, was marvelous. When Thaîs sings to the crowd (onstage and in the audience), she needs to invigorate and dazzle. In this scene, which opens the act, she becomes a three-dimensional character. Pérez seemed to hold time in her hand, the measures going past but the expression concentrated on unveiling the layers of her personality.

Finley delivered a performance that had a subtlety almost never seen on the operatic stage. He projects a sense of seriousness in all situations, and his Athanaël was cold and dour, the kind of man who becomes a monk precisely to enjoy the mortification of the flesh.

This is true to the character, who struggles with his impious attraction to Thaïs and transforms it into contempt for her and her world. But Finley was more than this, he was like a grim, iron block.

Through the first two acts, this produced no chemistry whatsoever between he and Perez. The two characters are supposed to be in a life-changing intellectual and spiritual contest, especially Athanaël, who feels compelled by God to convert Thaïs. Saturday, Thaïs was self-assured, relaxed, commanding, while the monk was wrapped up in his own anger and bitterness, repelling the world around him and almost repellent himself. The two sang past each other, and the conversion scene did not click; Athanaël lectured and Thaïs gamely tried for a human response.

Then, as the two characters wander in the desert at the start of Act III, looking for the convent of Mother Albine that will be Thaïs’ new home, she stops in exhaustion. The monk, initially as ruthless as ever, is moved to pity by her bleeding feet.

In the space of the first few syllables of “Ah! Des Gouttes de Sang Coulent,” Finley smoothly, quietly began to glow from the inside, conveying a softness and warm humanity that had previously been hidden. It was a remarkable transformation exactly because of Finley’s earlier aloof characterization.

As the two sang the duet “Baigne D’eau Mes Mains,” through which Thaïs shows she loves Athanaël for bringing her to God, and the monk, without fully realizing it, shows that he loves her in every worldly sense, Athanaël became a fully realized, compelling character—his final agonies were thus even more affecting.

Finley started sluggishly Saturday afternoon. In Act I, his expressive range was unusually narrow, though starting with Act II his expressive range and reach broadened. His fellow monks, the first singers heard, were underpowered throughout, and bass-baritone David Pittsinger, as Pelémon, had a stiffness to his singing in both the first and last acts.

Tenor Jean-François Borras was strong as Athanaël’s sybaritic friend. He sang with ease and bright colors from the start, and carried a supercilious air that made both his lust for Thaïs and his ease at letting her go clear and understandable.

The other high-flying soprano part, La Charmeuse, was sung by Deanna Breiwick in her Met debut. While the part was danced by Syrena Nikole, Breiwick’s stratospheric arpeggios had one laughing in charmed astonishment.

Equally fine were soprano France Bellemare (another Met debut) and mezzo-soprano Megan Marino as Crobyle and Myrtale; their harmonies were a pleasure throughout.

The Met Orchestra, directed with excellent leadership by Emmanuel Villaume, deserved even more praise than usual. They played with warmth and naturalness, with every phrase having a musical purpose and meaning. Every one of Villaume’s decisions—tempo, dynamics, shape—seemed just right because their were barely noticeable. Each section produce a broad array of colors, and the strings played with a special intimacy and gentleness. Concertmaster David Chan’s dolcissimo playing in the entr’acte with the famous “Meditation” violin solo was one of the finest moments of the entire performance.

Thaïs continues at the Metropolitan Opera through December 2. metopera.org; 212-362-2000.

2 Responses to “With lustrous singing by Pérez, Met’s “Thaïs” eventually sees the light”

  1. Posted Nov 12, 2017 at 3:43 pm by Arthur Bartholomay

    Give ME a break! At the outset, we wondered what we would be in for the afternoon. The scene when Thais first appears was A DISASTER. This monochromatic shrill sometimes off key voice greeted us.

    The change in subsequent acts was nothing short of miraculous.

    The conducting at times was a bit over the top, sometimes drowning out the singer in question, almost never with the nuances that we have come to love at the Met.

    We can listen to, probably, this performance, on a radio broadcast in the future, and see if I am completely off the wall.

  2. Posted Nov 13, 2017 at 1:15 pm by Aodan Peacock

    Thank you. A much-welcomed assessment. Perhaps it was the set affecting the acoustics or perhaps the orchestral volume overwhelmed the voices, but I found it quite difficult to hear the lyrics and, as you say, these were powerful singers.

    Also, I found the production ‘overly-tidy” and, other than the superb singing quality, quite passionless. This rather weak story-line might have been enlivened by more dramatic acting?

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