Dave Richards, Toronto Concert Reviews
Last night’s foréee into grand opera by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall was indeed very special. It is rare to attend concert versions of grand opera with full orchestra. (I haven’t been a fan of the scaled-down piano accompanied versions). TSO’s Interim Music Director Sir Andrew Davis led an outstanding cast in a dramatically and musically charged performance of Massenet’s Thaïs that kept me riveted for the full two and a half hours. That the performance was being recorded for the Chandos recording label meant that orchestra, soloists and chorus were all fully prepared to make it a memorable night.
Jules Massenet’s Thaïs is new to Toronto audiences in any form (stage or concert), but in the hands of Davis, the TSO, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and a cast led by the splendid voices of soprano Erin Wall and baritone Joshua Hopkins, this reviewer was left musically fulfilled while wishing for a fully staged version to come to Toronto at some future point.
Thaïs, set in the 4th century AD, has themes that are as relevant today as they ever were. It has been a universal desire of humans to seek a spiritual basis for life, and at the same time, religions of all sorts, in giving form to spiritual aspirations, have tried to impose their rules and morality on others. Athanaël, a Christian monk who has left his study of philosophy with his former friend Nicias to take up the penitent life in a monastery has a zealous desire to convert to his monastic lifestyle Thaïs, the beautiful courtesan with a carnal life of love and lust.
Taking that theme to our present context, in our recent election, the fear of religious beliefs being imposed on the country was at least in part the reason for the results. The question, “Do you believe homosexuality is a sin?” is still in the news. Ironically in the opera, the monk Athanaël’s own carnal desires come to the surface while it is Thaïs who finds peace in her spirituality. Was Athanaël’s obsession to convert Thaïs rooted in his physical attraction to her from the outset? The question isn’t answered, but it does beg the question of why people seem to have a need to impose their beliefs on others.
The opera’s provocative themes notwithstanding, this performance was about the music, the rich orchestral orchestration and the stellar singing. Led by a cast of mostly Canadian artists with international reputations, there wasn’t a weak link. Erin Wall, last heard in Toronto in the COC’s production of Strauss’s Arabella, was breathtakingly stunning. She has a voice that rivals any of the world’s leading sopranos. And this is not an easy score. Written for Massenet’s close friend, American soprano Sybil Sanderson, it is renowned for its difficulty. The aria “Dis-moi que je suis belle et que je serai belle éternellement” was sung with full-bore emotion speaking to the universal fear of aging and dying.
The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir displayed its versatility performing several roles, as a group of monks, citizens of Alexandria, nuns, and off-stage angels. I was especially impressed by the warm tone and blend in the men’s voices.
Read the full review here.