Last night I have the incredible pleasure of attending Thaïs at the Metropolitan Opera. The tickets were given to me as a part of my anniversary gift, and I have been looking forward to it since September.
I have a special history with this particular opera. A year ago I was in a production of Corpus Christi in Houston, TX. In that show, a young gay boy hears “The Meditation” which is a instrumental piece which reflects Thais’ change of heart in the middle of the opera. I loved the piece, and although I had heard it before, it was not until that production that I really looked into what it meant, and what the opera as a whole was about. Having beefed up my knowledge and purchased Renee’ Fleming’s recording of the piece I felt I had found a new opera to love. I also watched the DVD production starring Eva Mei.
I had high expectations as I entered into the Metropolitan Opera House, but from the moment I finally saw the theatre itself I knew I would have those expectations surpassed. I have seen the backstage of the MET but never the front, and what I saw was absolutely incredible. The whole place glitters. The chandeliers and light fixtures resemble stars and the entire front of the theatre is gilded in gold. There could not be a more perfect place to stage Thais.
The curtain rose on the first act, and I was impressed how the actors and director managed to make the most boring part of the entire opera somewhat interesting. Part of it was the fact that it took place in a desert, and not in a more traditional looking monostary. The ruins of ancient egypt buried in the sand provided a wonderful set for the monks who basically do very little but sing about how great God is, and what they wish God would do. The actors I feel deserve special mention as their part is technically difficult as much of it is done accapella, which is incredibly hard in Opera. They pulled it off beautifully.
Speaking of beauty, in Act 1 Scene 1, we get the first glimpse of Thais. I was so happy that Renee Fleming was playing Thais, because she is supposed to be as wild as Carmen, as cunning as Delilah, and as beautiful as Helen of Troy. This is not an easy thing to portray, especially in an opera singer. Mrs. Fleming however fits the part as perfectly as the haute couture gown that she wore for the production. Keeping in mind that Renee Fleming is fifty, she looked about 25, and you could not tear your eyes away from her whenever she was on stage. Thais and Mrs. Fleming certainly know how to work an entrance. Thais enters with an entourage of revelers and people throwing rose petals. Mrs. Fleming becomes this beacon of light and life the second she appears on stage. Fleming’s first notes are agile and lovely, and her face is radiantly expressive. This adds so much to pierce the darkness that surrounds Athaniel.
The second act is my favorite. Here we see Thais in her parlor praying to her mirror and the Goddess Eros that she remain young and beautiful. Mrs. Fleming’s performance of the aria “Dis-moi que je suis belle” took my breathe away. I’d heard her on numerous recordings, but hearing her live was an experience that filled my body with so many emotions. I was excited to hear her voice and hear that she truly is as incredible as her recordings would have you believe. I was nervous that something might go wrong and she might fall from the pedestal I had placed her on. I was awed. In the productions I have seen the part where Thais prays to Eros the performer normally has a luxury of some huge statue or monolithic representation of the goddess. Mrs. Fleming had a small stand which had incense being burned as a sacrifice to Eros. Fleming stood before it wafting her hands bringing the swirling clouds around her as she prayed, and despite having smoke in her face and lungs, managed to maintain a pitch perfect performance. I was almost surprised Eros didn’t just show up and help out given the incredible performance. Thais does not receive acknowledgment from Eros, but Mrs. Fleming received enthusiastic and long lasting applause.
It is perhaps because Act II is my favorite, that it is also Act II that I found my first criticism of the Opera’s director. The famous “Meditation” is played between the two scenes in Act II. It is supposed to be a part of the Opera, and marks the change of heart which drives Thais to go with Athaniel and leave her former life. This piece was brilliantly performed by the solo violinist, but the director decided to let the piece be played while the stage curtain was drawn. With absolutely nothing on stage, audience members were being asked to focus on the music. However, the audience also saw this piece in isolation. On the DVD performance a beautiful ballet happens showing Thais having a vision of a woman being crucified. It truly helped make the piece a part of the opera as a whole. Whereas I do not think it is necessary to do something like that, I found the closed curtain reduced “Meditation” to incredibly difficult scene change music. The program describes the importance of the piece, and what it means, but I felt the disconnection caused by the closed curtain was a poor choice for the director. If nothing an interesting light display on the large cloud canvas which was played during the overture would have been a better alternative.
Thais ends in Act III. Fleming’s performance was incredible, and I count myself lucky to have seen it. I was not incredibly fond of the final set where Thais was placed upon a throne (it resembled the kind that saints are depicted as sitting on) as it made blocking her death incredibly awkward. Half the time I was worried she might fall off the set and hurt herself.
I enjoyed my first experience at the Metropolitan Opera, and I hope I will be able to go more once I am done with law school. To witness a legend like Renee Fleming has made a dream of mine come true, and I was happy to once again find my passion for Opera as an art form.