"It's all a bunch of crap!" - Thaïs on Met HD Live!
THIS WEEK IN TEXAS
Over the years opera has developed a reputation for telling stories that are too often silly, risible or incomprehensible, and sometimes all three at once. As we settle into the twenty-first century most managers of opera companies have faced up to this problem, and to the fact that it makes selling their product very difficult indeed. The solution is often to bring in a director whose primary function seems to be to alter everything except the music. So, we often see stories set in Biblical times moved up to the present on the premise that they will thereby seem to be less ridiculous. The result is usually that they then appear both ridiculous and mismatched with the text and the music.
These thoughts came to mind as I watched John Cox’s production of Massenet’s Thaïs, a vehicle for Renée Fleming and made available to millions around the world last week via the Met’s HD Live series.
Massenet’s libretto is based on a contemporary novel by Anatole France set in Alexandria, Egypt in the fourth century A.D. Cox has updated it to something close to our time, presumably, to clarify the universality of the story. Cox’s updating, however, is so haphazard that we end up losing our bearings completely.
Some characters in the Cox production appear to be dressed in costumes approximating fourth century Egypt, others in modern dress and still others seem to have grabbed whatever was left on the racks in the Met’s wardrobe department. Set and costume designer Paul Brown created a lavish world for his Thaïs - so lavish that one might think he had somehow benefited from all the billions of bucks flying around New York these days, as Wall Street investment houses run amok and the U.S. Treasury rushes to reimburse them!
Cox’s vision called for monumental sets requiring battalions of high-priced stage hands to move them around – Met HD Live generously showed us in great detail how it was all done – but in the end Cox could probably have achieved much more with a bare stage.
These observations notwithstanding, the basic problem with this opera, is that Louis Gallet’s libretto is dreadful. The story originally told by Anatole France has a monk Athanaël attempt to convert the courtesan Thaïs to a Christian life (i.e. enter a convent). No sooner has Athanaël achieved his goal, however, than he realizes that he lusts after the girl himself. Too late! He rushes back to the convent to declare himself, but Thaïs passes away in his presence without understanding or appreciating his declaration of love.
The tough part here is Thaïs’ conversion, and Gallet simply couldn’t figure out how to handle it. Without a convincing conversion, the opera really doesn’t work. Nor is there much in the libretto to enable the singer playing Athanaël to grow from religious obsession to earthly passion.
In an interview published in the Met HD Live Program Guide, Thomas Hampson, singing Athanaël, articulated perfectly what it is all about: “It’s in the last scene, when Athanaël comes crashing into reality, that he probably blurts out the most self-examining line of the entire evening, right before she dies and (he) says, ‘It’s all a bunch of crap; it’s only about finding love in life – that’s the only thing that matters.’ ”
The problem lies in convincing the audience that this man Athanaël could really come to such a realization based on who he appeared to “be” earlier in the opera. The libretto doesn’t give him much to work with, and the director John Cox hasn’t offered much help to either Hampson, or Fleming in working out their characters. What he does do is throw in some pathetic Middle Eastern kitsch in the form of laughable belly dancing.
A more imaginative director could have mirrored the motivations of the protagonists by means of projections, or perhaps some kind of dramatic tableau during the famous Méditation, beautifully played by concertmaster David Chan. Such elements could have been incorporated into a production still based in the fourth century, or even into a more abstract version. Cox just didn’t seem to be able to come with anything integrally creative.
The result was that Fleming and Hampson were left to fend for themselves. The direction, sets and costumes all seemed to be working against them. Fortunately, they both sang magnificently and for many opera fans that was more than enough. But why then bother spending all that money on sets and costumes?
Another factor that worked against one’s enjoyment – at least mine – was the way the opera was presented to the Met HD Live audience. The producer seems to feel that the audience needs to be looking at something interesting all the time; accordingly, we got to see every scene change in great detail, including all the sweating and some of the swearing too.
All this backstage business was engaging, perhaps, but it doesn’t belong in the live performance. After all, in any theatrical production, the curtain is lowered so that our ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ (Coleridge) is not utterly destroyed.
This Met HD Live producer apparently doesn’t understand that when there is music being played by the orchestra, as in the Méditation and the Prelude to Act Three, it is meant to express feelings related to the story, not to be an accompaniment to parts of sets being heaved about behind the curtain.
Finally, I could also have done without the breathless interviews done by Placido Domingo, as Fleming and Hampson either prepare to go on stage or as they are leaving the stage. This ‘between innings chatter’ may be alright for sports events but it again breaks the spell of the drama.
There is not much point in the artists suiting up as Thaïs and Athanaël if they are going to present themselves to the audience seconds later - still in costume and make-up - as, well, Fleming and Hampson.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at http://www.amazon.com.