Massenet’s Thaïs loses its impact in transition from opera to concert stage

John Terauds, Toronto Star

Thaïs Grand Opera in Concert

3 stars out of 4.

By Jules Massenet. Libretto by Louis Gallet. Sir Andrew Davis, conductor. Toronto Symphony Orchestra with soloists and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Repeats Nov. 9 at Roy Thomson Hall, 60 Simcoe St.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw enjoyed playing music critic. He described French opera master Jules Massenet as “one of the loudest of modern composers.” The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, hosting a rare concert performance of an opera on Thursday night, proved Shaw’s point.

Conductor laureate Sir Andrew Davis conducted the 1898 revision of “Thaïs,” which had its premiere in 1894 at the Palais Garnier in Paris. The forces on the Roy Thomson Hall stage included excellent vocal soloists and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

Concertmaster Jonathan Crow had the honour of playing the violin solo in the opera’s most famous excerpt, the “Meditation Scene.”

Orchestras had grown big by the late 19th century. Parisian opera had, as well. Massenet’s “Thaïs” contains all the bigness one can imagine, from the instrumental forces to the demands placed on the two lead singers.

There are no big arias in the Italian sense. Instead, this opera features long declamatory passages that occasionally morph into melodic monologues. The orchestration is dense and colourful all the way through, demanding big voices to compete and balance.

Read the full review here.