Jules Massenet’s Thaïs was once nearly a staple of the operatic repertoire but faded from view outside of France by the mid-20th century. The 1894 work is a heady mixture of repressed passion and religiosity set in ancient Egypt with a score that blends such diverse influences as Orientalism, Wagnerian music drama and French grand opera.
Recent decades have seen a revival of interest in the opera, often as a star vehicle for a gifted singing actress. Florida Grand Opera’s production showcases former Miamian Eglise Gutierrez as the Egyptian courtesan, and Saturday’s opening performance at the Arsht Center, for the most part, was a compelling evening of fine vocalism and vibrant orchestral playing.
Based on a novel by Anatole France, the opera is the story of the fundamentalist Cenobite monk Athanaël’s attempt to make the actress/courtesan Thaïs repent her sinful life and dedicate herself to God. The test of wits and wills between the two ends ironically as Thais accepts faith, dying peacefully, while the pious monk has fallen for worldly love and the flesh, unable to control his passion for her. Massenet wrote voluptuous music touched with Middle Eastern color for this sensuous tale, his orchestral writing soaring to almost symphonic richness at times.
Director Renaud Doucet has been responsible for some of FGO’s weakest productions over the past decade, his tasteless and trivial staging of Barber of Seville one of the most egregious examples. Doucet’s Thaïs was not devoid of gratuitous elements — Athanaël throwing Thais to the ground, a suggestion of forced sex between Nicias and Thaïs, and two servant girls making out (were maidservants part of the upper-class orgies in Byzantine Alexandria?).
Still, this Thaïs production was one of Doucet’s better efforts. Laden with religious symbolism, the opera can easily become heavy-handed or over the top. The French director avoided most of the libretto’s clichés and pitfalls, maintaining tight dramatic tension between the two protagonists while providing color and spectacle in the crowd scenes. Andre Barbe’s austere unit set aptly suggests the desolation of the desert and, with Guy Simand’s brightly hued lighting, turns into a Hollywood vision of Nicias’ palace at Alexandria with eye-catching costumes during the carnival frolics.
Looking stunning as the toast of Alexandria, Gutierrez brought alluring vocalism to the title role’s myriad colors and frenzied emotions. Her soprano has gained in richness and size, and her middle register was full and expressive. Only two edgy high C’s that almost missed the mark detracted from a riveting performance (somewhat surprising for a soprano who has made Bellini and Donizetti heroines the centerpiece of her repertoire).
There was volatile chemistry between Gutierrez and the Athanaël of Kristopher Irmiter. A powerful singing actor, Irmiter captured the monk’s Old Testament frenzy in molten bass-baritone proclamations, the sound turning mellow and warm for Thaïs’ death and redemption.
The cast was filled out with members of the FGO young artist program. Martin Nusspaumer as Athanaël’s wealthy friend Nicias confirmed the strong impression he made in Nabucco earlier in the season. His cultivated lyric tenor has ring and strength at the top, easily riding over the full orchestra and chorus.
Caitlin McKechney’s dusky timbre and Riley Svatos’ bell-like top notes highlighted the servants’ mirthful interjections. Adam Lau brought a rich basso-cantante and stern gravity to the Cenobite leader Palemon, and Raehann Bryce-Davis ennobled the Mother Superior Albine with dignity and warm mezzo tone.
Ramon Tebar led a sensitive and dramatic performance, drawing supple instrumental coloring and consistently excellent playing. Concertmaster Scott Flavin offered the sweet-toned violin solos in the famous “Meditation.” Whether playing monks, Egyptian revelers or serene nuns, Michael Sakir’s chorus achieved vocal strength, the dynamic contrasts finely detailed. With a cast and conductor equal to the score’s considerable demands, Thaïs is a major triumph for Florida Grand Opera.