The climax of the Royal Opera's year-long French-themed season was this concert performance of Massenet's Thaïs (repeated on Friday 29 June) starring the American soprano Renée Fleming.
The event revealed both the flaws and the innovations of the opera. Louis Gallet's libretto, based on Anatole France's novel, is unusual in being laid out in prose rather than conventional rhyming couplets. It allowed Massenet to move almost seamlessly from recitative to lyric set piece and back again, already establishing aspects of the fluid impressionistic style that Debussy would later favour in Pelléas et Mélisande (reviewed last month). There are some amazingly vivid offstage instrumental effects, and the use of brass, percussion and woodwinds is evocative of the mysterious settings of the piece.
Yet it can become a bit monotonous at times, largely because of the lack of definition between numbers. While understandably breaking down many of the old-fashioned conventions that had ruled romantic opera for decades, Massenet was also fraying the golden thread that held it together.
Nevertheless, Sir Andrew Davis led a superlative account of the score, with the ROH Orchestra at the height of its powers, not least in the famous Meditation (the solo violin part of which was played with elegance and an admirable lack of flashiness by Concert Master Peter Manning). It is good to have Davis back at the House, albeit too briefly, and both his fine-tuning of the details of orchestration and his sensitive accompaniment of the singers were exemplary.
In the absence of a staged production, we were left to imagine the exotic settings of Thaïs in our heads. The opera is set in the Egyptian desert of the Thebaid and in the city of Alexandria, where a monk called Athanaël determines to convert the courtesan Thaïs from her immoral ways to a pure Christian life. She repents but dies soon afterwards in a convent, where Athanaël has pursued her, having fallen in love with her. It's a romantic story that allowed the composer a broad compositional canvas, but without costumes and a staging, it was sometimes difficult to engage with the story or the characters in this concert performance.
A particular problem was that so many of the singers were glued to their scores through the whole performance. This was understandable in the case of two of them, who were replacing previously announced artists at short notice, but in most cases the barrier between singer and audience was off-putting.
Renée Fleming was commendable in this respect, because not only did she not use the score but she really acted the part and threw herself into the text as well. However, I do not feel it is a comfortable role for her. Thaïs was originally written for a coloratura soprano, but Fleming's upper register is simply not secure enough for her to float the notes above the stave with sufficient ease or accuracy. Additionally, a lot of the conversational or recitative-type music is composed very low in the voice, where it does not lie particularly well for her. She was as always stunning to watch and much of what she sang was exquisite. Yet I dislike certain of her vocal 'tics', such as her tendency towards swooping and her overuse of portamento in lyrical passages, which have become more and more intrusive into her singing. A valiant and formidable stab at a difficult role, then, but not an unqualified success.
Athanaël was to have been sung by Thomas Hampson, the popular American baritone with whom Fleming has often appeared, but he had to withdraw due to illness. Happily, Simone Alberghini's performance in no way compromised the evening as a whole. Indeed, he sang with great commitment and intensity. He captured the tortured intensity of this complex character to perfection and was in almost every way very impressive.
Joseph Calleja's voice has never been to my taste, but perhaps I am in the minority. I prefer a darker instrument to his rather light, airy, bland tenor, but he sang the part of Nicias with enthusiasm in this performance. As Palémon, Robert Lloyd was his customary self, which is to say full of gravitas and still an awesome singer after a career spanning several decades. I took a particular liking to Clare Shearer in the part of Albine: she had the perfect rich voice for this luxurious, sensuous score.
Sad to say, Kiera Lyness was overstretched as La Charmeuse, though she is to be commended for stepping into the breach late in the day (she only took over the part earlier in the week). However, excellent performances emanated from Jette Parker Principal Artist Liora Grodnikaite and especially Young Artist Ana James. The latter is a benefactor of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and she could be following in that great lady's footsteps if her astoundingly free coloratura and attractive vocal 'ping' in this performance is anything to go by.
The Chorus seemed perhaps a little awkward at times, mounting and dismounting the tiered platform at the back of the stage far too often and causing a constant distraction. But they cannot be blamed for their strange deployment through the opera - their contributions are neither marginal nor striking.
Ultimately, the work is something of an enigma, and although there were some memorable highpoints in this performance, much of the score is so forgettable that it is easy to understand why it is neglected.