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Renee Fleming/Thomas Hampson/Guiseppe Sabbatini/Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine/Yves Abel
Decca 466 766-2 [147 mins]

Feelings are mixed about this opera, about which Rodney Milnes, in his fascinating liner essay, writes "it is still hard not to sound defensive when writing about Massenet". Thais (1894) by Jules Massenet (1842-1912) is about a man and a woman at cross-purposes, who meet briefly before a tragic ending for both. A mature courtesan, her life style was of one-week relationships. Therefore, regrettably for us, the tenor lead, the excellent Guiseppe Sabbatini, fades from centre stage after Act One, leaving the two Americans Renee Fleming & Thomas Hampson to shoulder the main burden.

Thais renounces the flesh, but dies before she is immured in a narrow cell to await Jesus; the fundamentalist bigot Athanael discovers too late that his love was less pure than he believed. A lot of the music is religiose and mawkish, and you may feel that you hear the Meditation too many times (though it is always salutary to hear popular favourites in their original context). Some of the scenes are constructed cunningly, with cross-references that are discussed by Milnes.

The performance and recording are splendid and make the best possible case for this relatively neglected opera, which was a mainstay of the Paris repertoire for half a century. I found the central confrontation and conversion scene in Act Two exciting, indeed gripping, but lost patience with the last Act.

The three lead parts are taken magnificently, Renee Fleming's singing luscious and a continual cause for wonder and delight. The Bordeaux orchestra too makes a fine sound, and I should guess these may become demonstration discs for 19 C romantic opera enthusiasts. Yves Abel impresses in his pacing and ardour, and the recorded balance achieved in the Salle Franklin in Bordeaux is just right. My rating therefore ignores my personal reservations about the work itself, and Massenet enthusiasts need not hesitate.

Peter Grahame Woolf

and Colin Clarke adds

The classic recording team of James Lock and Simon Eadon has provided the ideal recording quality with which to do this neglected opera justice at last. A performance with a cast as strong as this has been a long time in coming but should set the record straight. Everybody, but everybody knows the Méditation for solo violin and orchestra (here magically realised by Renaud Capuçon). Few realise its import. This is the turning point of the drama, when Thaïs gains some sort of enlightenment and changes her ways from Salome-like seductress to humble supplicant. Heard in context, it takes on all manner of layers of meaning completely lacking from its usual function as an orchestral 'pop'.

Thomas Hampson, who takes the part of the young Cenobite Athanaël, brings all of his easy authority to his extended monologues. Athanaël's stated aim at the start is to turn Thaïs from her evil sensuous ways and the (at that point) certainty of his views comes through in the solidity of his voice. Hampson is capable of great tenderness, too, when he recalls Thaïs from his youth ('Hélas! Enfant encore'). Act One is very much Athanaël's act: although she appears towards the end of Act One, Thaïs comes into her own in Act Two. Giuseppe Sabbatini also impresses as Thaïs' lover Nicias, who in the process of falling under her spell has lost all of his possessions. He is strong of voice, but like Hampson has the ability to melt his tone effectively.

When Fleming (as Thaïs) initially enters, she is somewhat tremulous in comparison, her voice not quite gorgeous enough. Although later in Act 2 she convinces much more, her soliloquy, 'O messager de Dieu' is still not completely involved. She seemingly luxuriates in her own voice rather than being completely carried away by her part. Her prayer to Venus should make us feel sorry for her, but Fleming is simply not vulnerable enough, a point made explicit when Athanaël prays and the effect is totally heartfelt. Fleming does, however, give her all to the unforgettable duet at the close of the opera.

The one thing that binds this performance together is the conducting of Yves Abel. This is his first project for Decca, and he impresses by his masterful grasp of Massenet's characteristic sound and, above all, dramatic pacing. Just one example is the opening prelude, which sets the scene beautifully. By lightening the violin tone, the atmosphere is at once beautiful and authentic. The Divertissement of the second act gives the orchestra a chance to sparkle, an opportunity they clearly enjoy. All of the subsidiary parts are deserving of praise: perhaps special mentions should go to Elisabeth Vidal's perfectly pitched, pure-of-tone, evocative Enchantress and Enkelejda Shkosa's characterisation of the small part of Albine.


Colin Clarke



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