Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fleming Hits the Heights as Thais

I listened to prima of Massenet's Thais from the Metropolitan Opera last night and can only say I absolutely loved it. I’m a Massenet freak and have always felt Thais gets short shrift by critics - but audiences seem to love it, and I'm happy to see it being brought out a little more frequently than in the past. I am in love with Massenet's score, the story and there are moments of Thais that number in my “all time favorite” moments in opera. I know there are still criticisms of the “orientalism” elements of the score, but I adore even those. The opening music of the first Alexandria scene is so evocative of not just the time and place of the story (though, I admit not particularly ancient Egyptian sounding) but also of the period in which it was composed.

I've always liked Lopez-Cobos’s way with French music in general, and Massenet, in particular. His Manon a few seasons ago garnered some great reviews – and last night, I thought he did fine work as well (though I heard a couple of timing gaffs in the strings toward the end). Renee Fleming was, in a word: incredible. There was cream, velvet and, when necessary (and once or twice when not) a little steel. I’ve heard some criticism of the opening aria, but I felt it was sensational and really did have that “time standing still” element that the very best Thais’ (like there are so many of those!) can and do.

The voice sounds in absolutely incredible shape for a diva with 50 right around the corner – there are 30 year old singers just coming out who wish they could sound this fresh. The trademark pianissimi, floated tones and other tricks of the trade are shown off better in this role than 30 more popular operas I can immediately think of, and Fleming nailed nearly every one of those moments last night. The photos I saw of the production are fantastic, Renee looking impossibly glamorous . . . very nice!

The big bedroom scene leading into the Meditation was performed by everyone sounding and playing as though they were on fire! It was smoking hot and even Tommy Hampson who I admit can sound a bit fussy at times, was cutting loose and letting sparks fly, right up until Thais’ pronouncement/rejection “ Non je reste Thaïs! Thaïs! la courtisane!” where Fleming went (properly) mildly insane before cackling out her laugh and falling into sobs. This moment – that bridge to the Meditation –slays me, absolutely slays me every time. People make fun of this music at times and perhaps I don’t have a good perspective: I first heard this score when I was about 14 years old and thought it was “cool” – so it’s been locked in my heart pretty much since childhood.

The Desert Song . . . er Desert scene was marvelous with Fleming actually sounding as though experiencing a post-epiphany peace, and Hampson somehow conveyed (beautifully) sexual frustration through his sound. Again, I felt the orchestra took off in that marvelous storm music leading into the final scene. I have not seen (yet!) this production, but enjoyed the description of it that Thais is already dead, seated on an altar surrounded by flowers and candles, and doesn’t directly address Athanael during the final duet. And that duet is one of my favorite endings in all of opera – but it’s a voice buster. Massenet’s girl must wail pretty much in all registers, on that ascending four-note phrase that keeps descending in each repeat until she’s showing off her chest(!) – covering several extremes of the range in a handful of bars of music.
Unfortunately Fleming is only human and the top phrases sounded forced as if she were out of steam and willing the notes to be there. They still came off with a good deal of excitement, but not without noticeable effort. I worried that the final phrase “Ah! le ciel! Je voix... Dieu!” wouldn’t have the float necessary, but I that fear was unfounded, Fleming (with just the right amount of breathlessness and shimmer) floated it perfectly, leading into Hampson’s pathetic howl of heartbreak.

A friend wrote last night he thought Hampson was devoid of passion or involvement – I responded “he sounded like he was spitting blood” in the final scene. I listened again to the final duet three more times late last night and I’m sticking to my guns on this one!

How cool that when the curtains opened for the second time, Concertmaster David Chan was standing solo onstage to take a bow for his beautiful playing of the Meditation (and other moments).

And now, a couple of odd observations. Mary Jo Heath commented how when Meditation theme returns “this time it’s with a flute instead of violin.” Not in the score and not what we heard. Later she wondered how many chorus members were there when Thais was last performed 30 years ago, prompting William Berger to comment how the ’78 Met Thais was “a concert performance.” Wrong again. Who scripts for the hosts? It can’t be difficult to check facts in the archives. This ain’t the first time wrong info has come over the Sirius wire. That aside, it was a marvelous night for the Fleming, Hampson, Lopez-Cobos and the Met.

I can’t wait for the HD presentation which should be settled even better by the 20th!

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