Massenet: Thaïs

Frittoli, Ataneli; Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Regio Torino/Noseda (Arthaus DVD 101 385)

25 September 2009 3 stars

ThaisMassenet's Thaïs, a rarity but for its ubiquitous Meditation, has been enjoying something of a resurgence in the last decade. Part of this must be down to Renée Fleming, whose luxurious studio recording on Decca (released in 2000, with a cast including Thomas Hampson and Giuseppe Sabbatini) was a vocal tour-de-force, and whose MET performance is, the rumour mill tells us, to appear on DVD before too long.

Until then, this performance from the Teatro Regio in Turin joins an earlier Italian performance from Venice (on Dynamic, with Eva Mei and Michele Pertusi) as an enjoyable but flawed account. Thankfully, it features, musically, a sturdy triumvirate at its heart: soprano Babara Frittoli, baritone Lado Ataneli and the conductor Gianandrea Noseda. Neither Frittoli's Thaïs nor Ataneli's Athanaël has terribly idiomatic French, but Frittoli's vocal glamour, in particular, is never in doubt. She might shy away from the top D at the climax of a beautifully sung 'Dis moi que je suis belle,' but sings seductively, with a powerful voice that manages to marry flexibility with a piercing spinto quality, even if her vibrato can become rather too pronounced at times. Through economy of gesture – likely the idea of director Stefano Poda – she portrays a character of some nobility who, we feel, was destined for better things. Ataneli is a worthy foil as the monk who leads her to god, falling in love in the process. His voice is a quality instrument that's always well produced, even if its timbre lacks brightness. Noseda brings out the best of the score, highlighting its many moments of beauty and revelling in its skilful evocations of a highly exoticized and eroticized East – the persistent rhythms early on in Act One, Scene Two, in particular, seem to look forward to minimalism.

Musically speaking things are suitably lavish, then, and the production, too, seems not to have spared much expense in realising Poda's vision. It's that vision itself, however, that starts to raise a few questions; it is not helped by the overly fussy camera-work used to capture it for the small screen. Poda's production is not short on imagination and contains some striking visual images. Several times, for example, the stage raises up to show a debauched sub-stratum of society. Nicias's palace in the second scene is a lavish ornamental fantasy in white plaster, its motifs repeated across the set. Meanwhile, an imposing wall of oversize plaster-cast breasts, eyes and ear-lobes provides the striking backdrop in Thaïs's palace. The costumes, on the other hand, are a camped-up, swirly mixture that reminded me of the outfits given to the lost civilisations of so many sci-fi films. The 'staging' of the Meditation itself has a certain cool beauty, but reflects the whole production's penchant for the pretentious.   

I was not entirley convinced, either, with the profusion of extras clad only in thongs in the first scene and in the extended divertissement in Act Two, Scene Two, where the choreography gets rather too eccentric. Similarly, the idée fixe of an 'outsized modern hourglass' – not surprisingly, the booklet tells us 'a symbol of the irretrievable passage of time' – is poorly realized, especially in the video direction, where it is clumsily superimposed at the close over the split-screen shot of Athanaël and Thaïs. To be honest, though, but that stage I was enjoying the production itself more for its slightly camp excess than for any particular insights it was trying to convey. Interestingly, while many of the production's visual effects look smartly contemporary, its principals are directed with a surprising economy, with results that are static but nevertheless effective.

With a decent supporting cast and with Frittoli and Ataneli on fine form, there is much to enjoy here, but I felt myself appreciating its musical values more on their own terms than in conjunction with Poda's production.

By Hugo Shirley