An eternal tale of seduction and religious devotion
MetOpera revival of Thaïs production from 2008 is a passionate story about love and faith aptly delivered by Ailyn Perez in the title role and Gerald Finley as Athanaël, the holy monk. It is centered on a timeless struggle between the allure of the flesh and the piety of the spirit. The narrative and the score are charged with high emotions and endless desperation in search of harmony and salvation accentuated by Massenet’s highly recognized Meditation, the entr’acte for violin and orchestra.
Jules Massenet (1842-1912) wrote his wildly popular opera Thaïs, a comédie lyrique when his career as the most prolific French operatic composer was already well established. Thaïs has premiered at Opera Garnier in Paris in 1894 and gained widespread recognition shortly after at its first revival four years later. A libretto by Louis Gallet was based on the novel of the same title by Anatole France (1844-1924), a French poet, journalist and novelist. While Massenet’s other operas, Manon and Werther, are among the most performed, Thaïs holds its place for its exotic musical renditions, curious historical elements and the depth of emotions.
Anatole France’s story of the rich courtesan living in Alexandria, Egypt in around 4th century AD followed a legend known in Christian literature as the life of Saint Thaïs of Egypt. A servant of goddess Venus, she used her sensuality to seduce an ascetic Cenobite monk who was persuading Thaïs in his own efforts to convert her to Christianity. The plot is revolving around a power play between the earthy pleasures and a blind faith. And while in France’s story the Christian devotion takes a firm hold on the volatile spirit of a former sinner ultimately leading to her repentance and a vision of heaven, it could be interpreted as a dead-end in itself. On the other hand, the very earthy feelings awaken in the heart of a former monk, are showing a passage to real experiences and with that a possibility of reawakening. Some of the former productions of the opera led to a controversy around religious eroticism and irreversible tenets of belief. The role of Thaïs, which is notoriously difficult to sing, was written by Massenet for an American soprano Sibyl Sanderson.
To get in the spirit of this opera consider a majestic rendition of Massenet’s Meditation by Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott.
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