Review: Thaïs

Ian Ritchie, Opera Going Toronto

Thaïs, Jules Massenet’s sensational double portrait of raging piety and desire, shocked and alarmed the Catholic Church even before its Paris premiere in March 1894. The inspiration for the piece, an eponymous novel by Anatole France, éminence grise of turn of the century French letters, had promptly landed on the Vatican’s proscribed list shortly after publication four years earlier, an overtly erotic saga of a love-obsessed monk. Sensing an almost guaranteed operatic hit, Massenet rushed to claim the theatrical rights. With an only slightly more circumspect libretto by literary adventurer Louis Gallet set as experimental poésie mélique, the lusty 3-act lyric drama stormed into the Palais Garnier where it reigned virtually unaltered for over half a century.

Less surprising perhaps than might be expected given its historical pedigree, Thaïs, though infrequently performed today, has lost none of its power to grip the imagination as amply demonstrated at Roy Thomson Hall late last week.

Marshalling a prodigious display of orchestral and vocal resources, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra treated near sold out audiences to an all too brief two-night run of landmark concert performances conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Partnered by a phalanx of one hundred plus choristers courtesy the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir directed by David Fallis, a succession of enthusiastic soloists and ensemblists provided proof positive of the intensely emotional, grandly operatic tale’s abiding power to seduce.

Massenet’s music arguably reaches a pinnacle of expressiveness in Thaïs. Character speaks as vibrantly in the rising and falling patter of notes as in Gallet’s frank flow of blank verse.

Read the full review here.