‘I want to free this woman from the bonds of the flesh!’ Inspired by a vision in a dream, the monk Athanaël sets off from the desert to Alexandria in order to lead the courtesan Thaïs away from the path of vice and towards God. His scheme ultimately succeeds, but with unexpected consequences. For it is not only Thaïs who is transformed but also he who seeks to convert her – and in the opposite direction at that. After he has consigned Thaïs to a convent and returned to his fellow monks, Athanaël is forced to admit to himself something against which he has been fighting subconsciously from the outset: that he also desires Thaïs physically. This duplication of conversion that Anatole France devised in his novel Thaïs (1890) was what made the legend of St Thaïs so attractive for the fin de siècle, with its themes of suppression of drives, repression and projection. Massenet’s opera Thaïs (1894), which is based on France’s novel, depicts Athanaël’s conflicts within the framework of an astoundingly nuanced portrait in both psychological and musical terms. As far as the figure of Thaïs is concerned, contemporary views tended to agree with Victor Wilder’s verdict, that Massenet ‘adores the perfume of the boudoir interlaced with the vapours of incense’; few thought the transformation of the courtesan to saint credible. Was it perhaps their prejudices against Thaïs’ counterparts in contemporary Paris that prevented them from listening properly? Massenet portrays his title figure not as a manipulative vamp, but despite all her seductiveness as natural and honest, as direct and yet vulnerable, with inner as well as outer grace and beauty. Even the famous ‘Méditation’, which describes Thaïs’ conversion and is often derided as mawkish, can be heard in this sense as what it is: a psychologic-ally ‘genuine’ orchestral interlude – and ‘a marvellous example of self-generating, potentially endless melody’ (Rodney Milnes), such as only Massenet could write in all its haunting beauty.
(Translation: Sophie Kidd)
More information is available on the opera house's official website.
August 16, 2016 21:00:00
Work's characters list