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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Thaïs (1892-94, revised 1898)
Comédie lyrique in Three Acts and Seven Scenes
Erin Wall – Thaïs; Joshua Hopkins – Athanaël; Andrew Staples – Nicias; Palemon - Nathan Berg; Crobyle - Liv Redpath; Myrtale - Andrea Ludwig; La Charmeuse - Stacey Tappan; Albine - Emilia Boteva
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis
rec. live, 4-9 November 2019, Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Canada
CHANDOS CHSA5258(2) SACD [72:37 + 59:31]

Thaïs has not enjoyed a particularly rich recording history, perhaps because it has an undeserved reputation for sentimentality when in fact it is a rather interesting study of the corrosive effects of both unbridled sensuality and religious fanaticism. Furthermore, until Yves Abel’s complete recording with Renée Fleming well over twenty years ago it was either recorded by sopranos too late in their career (Anna Moffo and Beverly Sills) or brutally cut, as in Jésus Etchéverry’s 1961 studio recording, which is beautifully sung and performed but missing Athanaël's Temptation and Vision scene, which should follow the Oasis scene - also sometimes cut - added by Massenet in the 1898 revision.

Other potential pitfalls include a lead soprano without any real sense of French style, casting too mature a singer as Nicias (Gedda for Rudel) and failing to find a baritone who can adequately convey the combination of sensitivity, sensuality, vulnerability and obsessiveness which characterises Athanaël. Thomas Hampson for Abel is good but his baritone is rather light and dry; richer-voiced and better is Robert Massard for Etchéverry. This new recording is presumably not a studio recording as such but a composite made from rehearsals and two live performances with subsequent patching? I don’t know; the booklet does not make it clear. Its only real competition is that studio recording conducted by Abel on Decca – but while that is entirely complete, this new one isn’t, as it cuts most of the ballet music - presumably because the performances from which is was derived were not fully staged.

The dynamic of the opera gains interest via the spectacle of the two main characters on diametrically opposed trajectories which could intersect but never do, as they pass each other by en route: the professional trollop feels the pull to abandon her dissolute lifestyle and embrace piety while the Man of God comes to acknowledge that his repressed sexual desire, once released, quashes his pietistic fervour. She aspires to spiritual serenity while he descends into carnal frustration; hedonism and asceticism can never be bedfellows.

So how does this new recording stack up? Well, of course the sound is excellent, conveying something of the atmosphere of the concert hall without losing detail, and the balance between the voices and the orchestra is ideal. Massenet’s quasi-Wagnerian score is voluptuous and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra plays it elegantly, stylishly bringing out its exotic, multi-layered orchestration, although I would say that Abel finds somewhat more lift, lilt and charm than Davis in the “raillerie” music of the second tableau of Act 1 and I have heard the famous Méditation played more sweetly. Not so stylish are the hokey wind-machine and thunder effects at the start of the second tableau of Act 3.

Members of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and Nathan Berg’s rich, resonant Palémon immediately create a favourable impression, which is consolidated by Joshua Hopkins’ beautiful, steady baritone, its tone enlivened and sustained by a pleasingly fast and regular vibrato and easy top notes. The concentration and intensity of his singing suggests the passion and virility Athanaël’s conceal beneath his cloak of humility. Andrew Staples’ nasal tenor is not as open as Giuseppe Sabbatini’s for Abel, but that lends some Gallic authenticity and the two floozies who adorn Athanaël sing charmingly. Everyone handles the free-flowing prose text elegantly in excellent French. Unfortunately, the mezzo-soprano singing la sainte Albine is a wobbler; it is the curse of so much modern singing and I do not know why anyone who has this egregious flaw in their singing continues to be cast.

I have left consideration of Erin Wall’s Thaïs till last. She has a vibrant, sizeable voice, lighter in timbre and not as plushly upholstered as Fleming’s and she sings feelingly, but I am bothered by the insistent amplitude of her vibrato, which creates a rather strident pulse – possibly less apparent and worrying live than it is as picked up by a microphone – which is not entirely consistent with the idea that her vampish exterior conceals a certain vulnerability and the effect as she ascends the scale is rather strident and hysterical. There are other flaws: her top C concluding Act 1 is not quite steady or secure and the floated, pianissimo top A flat concluding “Splendeur! Volupté! Douceur!” is indeterminately pitched towards flatness. Am I nit-picking? Well, Fleming set a very high standard and Wall is not as memorable, in that the American soprano is both more seductive as a poule de luxe and more moving as a broken penitent. Having said that, Wall is at her best in Act 3 and her duet with Hopkins, “Baigne d’eau mes mains” goes beautifully.

The provision of a booklet generously filled with an introductory essay in three languages, biographies, photographs and a French libretto with an English translation is an increasingly rare luxury – but, oddly, there is no plot synopsis.

Ultimately, this does not replace the Abel recording in my affections, insofar as while Joshua Hopkins’ Athanaël is the equal, if not better than Thomas Hampson’s, and there is little to choose between the conductors and their forces, neither Wall’s Thaïs nor Staples’ Nicias is the equal of their counterparts for Abel. I will still reach first for the Decca recording when I want to hear this lovely music.

Ralph Moore

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