Thaïs, the sexiest woman in Alexandria during the Byzantine era, and Blanche DuBois, the steamy Southern belle slipping past her prime in Tennessee Williams' "Streetcar Named Desire," may seem women world's apart. But both depend, in one desperate way or another, on the kindness of strangers.
Thaïs and Blanche will be the center of attention this weekend, when Los Angeles Opera closes its season with new productions of Massenet's "Thaïs" Saturday night and Andrè Previn's "Streetcar Named Desire" on Sunday. And that coincidence reminds us of another intriguing parallel.
Renèe Fleming, who was Previn's muse for "Streetcar" and will star in the L.A. Opera production, also happens to be today's best-known Thaïs. She first recorded the role in 1997, the year before singing in the San Francisco Opera premiere of "Streetcar." One of the early Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts featured Fleming in "Thaïs." That 2008 performance, available on DVD, may be for many operagoers the standard to which Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze, L.A. Opera's Thaïs, will be held. The host on that "Thaïs," in our small operatic world, is Plácido Domingo, who will be Machaidze's costar.
Beauty and its fading are the themes of both operas, and both are bathed in a delicate exotic eroticism, be it that of a late 19th century French romantic or a late 20th century American one. These operas, slightly out of touch with their progressive times but highly enticing nonetheless, might easily be ranked as guilty pleasures for some.
But not for Fleming. She has just released a new CD entitled "Guilty Pleasures," and rather than Massenet, she selects Delibes' "Lakmè"; rather than Previn, John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles." She sings the 17 songs and arias here with the uniform gorgeousness for which she is so admired. Perhaps that's what makes these guilty pleasures.
"Thaïs" and "Streetcar" are about beauty but require more than beauty. They are drenched in deep guilt and irrepressible pleasure, and these qualities are in existential conflict, not pleasant diversion.
“Thais,” Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A., May 17, 25, 29; June 1, 4, 7. Tickets $19-$334; laopera.org or (213) 972-8001