Massenet's "Thaïs," which reached Los Angeles Opera for the first time Saturday night, may be an antique French opera. But it's an exotic, erotic antique concerning an alluring courtesan in decadent 4th century Alexandria. She inflames desire in a Cenobite monk who sets out to convert her from the worship of Eros to that of Christ. His lust, of course, is the issue.
What titillated the Parisian public at the end of the 19th century cannot be counted on to work on today's operagoer. But the French pornographic fascination with sin and sacrament during the Third Republic is not so archaic to our century.
The "Thaïs" premiere in 1894 is remembered for Sibyl Sanderson's wardrobe malfunction. A strap holding up the gown of the full-figured soprano from Sacramento, the daughter of a former California Supreme Court chief justice, slipped (or she let slip). Sanderson finished the first act by seducing the monk Athanaël topless, to, it was reported, the pleasure of the company, the composer, the crowd and the critics.
L.A. Opera's "Thaïs" also offers an eyeful. But in this case, it is not an indecent soprano but the lavishly detailed sets and costumes by German designer Johan Engels. Thaïs enters in a bird-gown that really might have allowed Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze the ability to fly were she not weighed down by 9.5 yards of gold fabric, 10 yards of trim and 96 rhinestones. This is glittering armor meant to stay put.
Mainly, though, L.A. Opera's production by director Nicola Raab, imported from Sweden's Gothenburg Opera, comes our way because Plácido Domingo had long been itching to perform in it. When soprano Renée Fleming sang the title role at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008, Domingo hosted the HD broadcast and said then how much he wished he could be her leading man. But Athanaël is a baritone and Domingo was at the time a tenor.
Now he's a baritone. So after dashing to L.A. from Vienna, where he just starred in Verdi's "Nabucco," the tireless 73-year-old was in fresh, fervent voice at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday. Draped throughout in rags, while everyone else was splendidly attired, Domingo nonetheless made himself the real focus of the opera.
Massenet meant Athanaël to be a young monk. But if we had an old one — Athanaël is Domingo's 139th role — besotted by a beauty less than half his age, that, as we know from daily headlines or the latest Lars von Trier film, is ever a tale told.
A hoary, horny monk, moreover, suits Raab's production, which is feminist and chaste. The German director makes the monks not religious recluses but kinky swells in white tie and tails, the theater crowd. The time seems to be Massenet's. A theater is the contextual motif, with much of the action backstage. The sets are complex, lavish and clever, mixing realism and surrealism. Massenet's hootchy-kootchy ballet, which ends in a bacchanal, is cut. An effort is made to keep camp and kitsch in check.
Thaïs, particularly as sung by Machaidze, might be Sarah Bernhard portraying Tosca. Her theatrical gestures are broadly histrionic in the overstated manner of an earlier age. Machaidze's voice is grand-sized to match, not the more delicately precise inflection of a French soprano. She turns words into mush, but gorgeous, voluptuous mush.
One difficulty with the opera has always been that Athanaël has a too-easy time converting Thaïs. She looks in the mirror, worries about getting old. When the opera's famously sentimental "Meditation," for violin and orchestra, washes over her, she figures to leave the prostitution racket while she is ahead and purge herself of her sins. In this production, though, Thaïs seems to be more the actress disillusioned with theater and society than with sex.
Athanaël, who operates on the premise that pain kills desire, then drags through the harsh desert and deposits her in a convent, thinking this will save her. But she'd already saved herself.
Instead, Raab's production treats the desert as a treacherous terrain for the monk. Sand dunes are shaped as breasts (shades of Sanderson?). The monks, their white tie and tails in tatters, sit among theatrical ruins of broken seats and phallic Greek columns that revolve around the sandy breasts. By the time Athanaël accepts his inner lust, Thaïs has already exchanged depravity for saintly deprivation as a ticket to sainthood.
The performance is generally strong, if sometimes too strong. Domingo is ever on. He impressively doesn't hold back, beginning, middle or end. That, then, becomes contagious, not just to Machaidze's melodramatic Thaïs but also to the excessive hothouse nature of many aspects of this show, musically, visually and theatrically.
Patrick Fournillier, a Massenet specialist, conducts with undiminished expressivity, even when a little caution could lessen Massenet's more saccharine moments. As Thaïs' Parisian lover, Nicias, tenor Paul Groves perfectly gauges infatuation with resolve.
If Valentin Anikin is somewhat wan as Palemon, the Cenobite honcho, they're a dissolute bunch in this production. Milena Kitic's calm Mother Albine is meant to be wan. And concertmaster Roberto Cani's restrained solo in "Meditation" successfully has a healthfully low sugar content.
Still, it's no small accomplishment that an exotic, erotic antique sans sex might nonetheless prove an irresistible, relevant entertainment.