Melbourne Symphony Orchestra served up a dreamy slice of heaven in their Mid-Season Gala presentation of Thaïs in concert.
The shimmering beauty of Massenet’s richly melodious score made for a night of glorious music, especially with enthusiastic and exacting maestro Sir Andrew Davis at the podium. Davis’ love for the score shone through, supported by his intricate knowledge of it, as he presided over a richly detailed performance that brought out the full spectrum of colour and exoticism of the music.
Thaïs proved a perfect opera to be performed in concert; the absence of scenery is no problem whatsoever when a score conjures such vivid imagery. Moving from the austere, ponderous setting of the monastery to the decadent hedonism of Alexandria and back across the brutal desert, it is all in the music. Add to this a cast whose familiarity with their roles allowed them to interact freely and the result was a highly satisfying presentation.
Disturbed by visions of temptress Thaïs, ascetic monk Athanaël returns to Alexandria to convince the courtesan to abandon her life of sin. After reflecting on the fleeting nature of youth and beauty Thaïs agrees to leave with Athanaël, and his old friend Nicias, current lover of Thaïs, helps the pair escape. Following an arduous desert journey, Athanaël delivers Thaïs to a convent, returning later to find the poor woman on her deathbed.
As well as colouring his score with vibrant exoticism, Massenet creates keen anticipation for the entrance of Thaïs. Scene one features male voices only, with a pair of slave girls added in scene two before the eventual entrance of Thaïs.
Canadian soprano Erin Wall certainly made the wait worthwhile, delivering a divine rendition of the complex title role. Wall may not have a particularly high profile locally, but all in attendance at this concert have surely taken her to their hearts. Wall very effectively portrayed the character’s journey from vain seductress to vulnerable woman, conveying her suffering on the desert journey and the touching effect of the platonic love that develops with her saviour Athanaël. Wall’s full-bodied soprano had lustrous sheen, and her high notes, sung with seemingly effortless ease, were simply stunning.
As an indication that the central relationship is not a traditional romance, Massenet wrote the male lead, Athanaël, as a baritone. American singer Quinn Kelsey brought out the dark vocal hues that reflect the monk’s tortured inner conflict as Athanaël strives not to be affected by the beauty of Thaïs. Holding his score for security, Kelsey’s performance grew in intensity as the evening progressed, creating a driven yet sympathetic character.
Mexican tenor Diego Silva brought a charmingly modest presence to pleasure-loving Nicias, singing with a silvery elegance and an unwavering purity of tone.
In strong voice, commanding Australian bass Daniel Sumegi deftly conveyed the authority and wisdom of Palémon, the elder monk who counsels Athanaël.
In scene two of act two Massenet sidesteps momentarily from the central narrative to include an absolutely gorgeous terzet, “Celle qui vient,” which is primarily a duettino for soprano and mezzo-soprano with additional notes from a high soprano. As slave girls Crobyle and Myrtale, Jacqueline Porter (soprano) and Fiona Campbell (mezzo-soprano) sang the duettino with affecting beauty, while local star soprano Eva Kong made an alluring cameo appearance in the rather thankless role of ‘La Charmeuse.’
Luxury casting continued with the all too brief appearance of veteran dramatic contralto Liane Keegan as Albine, abbess of the convent. Keegan expertly captured the full character of the caring yet commanding figure, singing with deliberately guarded warmth and utter authority.
Guest chorus master Anthony Hunt worked the magic he regularly achieves at Opera Australia with the capacious and capable Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Positioned on three sides around and above the orchestra, the Chorus achieved rounded performances on par with the lead singers. Dynamics were crisp, and uniformity of expression was impressively disciplined.
Above all, the superb musicians of Melbourne Symphony Orchestra delivered the rare treat of a full opera played by a symphony orchestra. Supporting the singers sympathetically, the orchestra really shone in the various instrumental passages, including, of course, the famous “Meditation.,” which memorably closed the first half of the evening.
With Die Walküre Act 1 already announced for 2018, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s annual Opera in Concert series is very highly recommended.
The Thaïs program can be read online.
Thaïs played at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne on Saturday 26 August 2017.