Thursday, January 08, 2009


It was a few weeks ago but here are some notes I was asked to write for THAIS-
before the recent Met Opera HD presentation w. Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson.


Opera in three acts
Music by Jules Massenet
Libretto by Louis Gallet
Based on the novel by Anatole France

Premiere: Paris, Opera-comique, March 16, 1894

Take a hedonistic novel by Anatole France, add a composer with a bent for sensuality and an eye for feminine pulchritude, an exotic locale, a fascinating leading lady and voila:Jules Massenet's opera Thais ruled at the box office of the Opera-comique in Paris for years after its first performance in 1894.

Thais was a smash in Paris, especially when Sybil Sanderson sang the title role.
California born, the beautiful Sybil reportedly had a clear and attractive voice and looked well in Thais's costumes, both in the beginning of the opera as a courtesan and at the end, as a nun. She knew how to expire prettily in the arms of the baritone-monk Athanel, who chases Thais with the fervor of Jerry Falwell, seeking to "return this soul to God" in the fourth century, A.D.

Sybil Sanderson died young, reportedly from alcoholism and morphine addiction. She was succeeded as Thais by Scots-American soprano Mary Garden (1874-1967). Not for our Mary an early death. Her career embraced silent films and lasted on stage until the mid 1930s. Late in life she made the rounds as a lecturer, noting that "Massenet's love making was impossible." Mary even in old age knew how to get attention. No one denied her on stage potency, but her singing was controversial. "Miss Garden sang last night", wrote one critic. "Discussion of it is not agreeable." (Garden's few recordings, some over 100 years old, are lovely) Mary's American debut was as Thais-it was forgotten that it was the opera's American debut, too. The New York Times on December 14, 1907 noted the importance of the opera and Miss Garden's fame but added, "as a singer she improves upon acquaintance."

The source of the opera is a novel by Anatole France, winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize for Literature. Anatole France's text arguing the merits of paganism and sensuality v. Christianity and religious obsession changing into sexual obsession was powerful in its day. Massenet need a stage vehicle and wanted to capitalize on Sanderson's charms and box office clout.

Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967) brought Thais to the Metropolitan in 1918. She was said to have disliked the role. Geraldine was a looker and a big star herself, but the public preferred Mary. "A faint and shadowy substitute" sniffed The New York World. It's true that Thais as an opera depends on a powerful leading lady. But a baritone with a warm, masculine voice is also a requirement. Over the years, Maurice Renaud, John Charles Thomas, Clarence Whitehill and Sherrill Milnes have led us to Thomas Hampson. Renee Fleming, our heroine today, is an artist of beauty and style, and unlike Mary Garden, her singing gets critical hosannas. And let's not forget Beverly Sills, the heroine of the Metropolitan's last Thais revival, thirty years ago. It was late in Sills's career, and her retirement was already announced. The staging was disliked. The diva herself had a savvy publicist float a rumor that Beverly as Thais would dance nude. This gave Sills the perfect opportunity to appear on every TV chat show and laugh:
"You'd have to call this opera THIGHS, honey."
Mary Garden was smiling in heaven.

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