Sir Andrew Davis And The TSO Offer Rare Treat In Massenet’s Thaïs

Stephan Bonfield, ludwig van Toronto

The TSO, under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, the Toronto Mendselssohn Choir, and a talented cast of singers, treat Toronto to a lively, nuanced performance in the nineteenth-century French grand opera tradition.

It is rare to see French Romantic opera in Toronto, let alone to hear it in an Opera-in-Concert format. All the more remarkable was conductor laureate Sir Andrew Davis filling that much-needed gap in the city’s concert life with a splendid Toronto Symphony Orchestra-hosted evening of Massenet’s Thaïs.

Sir Andrew Davis has conducted a full version of the work six times, notably at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011, and two years ago with the Melbourne Symphony, to name only two examples. He is an advocate of the opera but best of all the TSO, under Davis’s smart and robust direction, demonstrated Thursday night that there is a willing and ready appetite to receive Massenet’s operas here. Perhaps Toronto will one day become a destination for performing more of the nineteenth-century French grand opera tradition and repertoire that has been steadfastly under-represented in our city.

The performance was long, as expected, lasting over two-and-half hours with intermission, and easily a musical success on a variety of levels. The orchestra, unconfined to a pit, could explicate all of Massenet’s assiduous colourings from the stage with suitable lyric freshness and a plethora of timbre that convinced us all the TSO had been playing this repertoire regularly for decades. It was a fabulous evening for the TSO all around.

And the singing was only impeccable, which states a lot about the ready-made musical ability of the cast, made up of all-star singers who easily navigated the French performance tradition of performing lyrical mélodie all night.

The plot derives from Anatole France’s novella of the same title, and revolves around two personalities, a monk Athanaël, who tries of his own accord to convert the courtesan Thaïs, who is a character possibly largely fictionalized out of 4th-century Alexandria. The intense Catholic lensing of hair shirt penitence is considered to be historically inaccurate to the desert life of the Egyptian monks, and is largely a product of Anatole France’s Catholic education. France was more interested throughout his literary career in coming to terms with the question of what seemed to constitute salvation for each person. To be redeemed, did they gradually learn to live perfect lives? Or were they always imperfect, but embraced love and came to understand the Divine through the act of love?

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was always beautiful, whether onstage or offstage, regardless of whether they were cast as monks or nuns, revellers or the dissolutes of Alexandria.

Read the full review here.