Massenet: Thais

Massenet: Thais
Massenet: Thais (click images to enlarge)
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Massenet: Thais

$16.25
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Manufacturer Description

Given the renaissance in recent years of an interest in Jules Massenet--consider, for example, the 1999 release of two Werthers back to back--the time definitely has become ripe for a new account of his late opera, Tha├»s. This is the first alternative to appear on CD since the problematic version with Beverly Sills from the 1970s. While far from flawless (curiously, it was recorded in two stretches, with a pause of 15 months between them), it makes a mostly convincing case for the stirring beauty of Massenet's much-misunderstood work. For Tha├»s, with its exotic setting in Egypt of the early Christian period, achieves much more than the sentimental romanticism often conveyed in out-of-context performances of its best-known excerpt, the violin instrumental Meditation. A kind of Tannhäuser in reverse, this story of sin and an illusory quest for salvation (adapted from Anatole France's novel) has its two main figures--the monk Athanaël and the beautiful courtesan Tha├»s --crisscross in their interior journeys, only to end by arriving at diametrically opposed destinies (in a chiasmus that is the exact opposite of the one depicted in Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke).

Many will seek out this account chiefly for the presence of Renée Fleming in the title role, and she indeed crafts a memorable portrayal of Tha├»s's path from worldly irony to trusting soul. Fleming deploys her familiar, unique vocal style with subtlety for the earlier scenes of Tha├»s as courtesan, delivering her great aria of doubt with a Marschallin-like vulnerability. Indeed, it's the breathy sumptuousness typical of her voice that makes the converted Tha├»s almost more of a challenge--although Fleming does achieve a noticeable softening effect, above all in her death scene. As the monk who tries to repress his very worldly feelings for Tha├»s, Thomas Hampson clearly carries the seeds of doubt from his first scene; if anything, the contrast between his two selves isn't stark enough, and he brings too much vocal polish to the scenes where we should hear a John the Baptist in hair shirt. Still, Hampson's sensitivity, however reserved, elicits the crucial sense of compassion for Athanaël's predicament. As Nicias, the cultured lover of Tha├»s, Giuseppe Sabbatini is excellent--their bittersweet farewell duet actually contains some of the best chemistry on the whole set. True, Massenet's score succumbs to passages of filler (for example, much of the ballet music) that aren't at the level of its more inspired lyrical stretches, but young conductor Yves Abel (making his Decca debut) captures its integral, supple beauty despite some roughness in transitions and an occasionally raw surface from the orchestra. Sound balances are less than ideal. An excellent booklet with full libretto is included. --Thomas May