John Cox’s production of Massenet’s Thaïs at the Metropolitan Opera is probably most remembered for the rather extraordinary collection of Christian Lacroix frocks that Met perennial Renée Fleming gets to wear. It’s rather more than that. In fact it’s a pretty good example of what the Met does best. It’s sumptuous and spectacular and has a pretty much ideal cast which, together, go a long way toward making this curious piece rather enjoyable.
The plot of Thaïs is a part of the problem. In brief, Cenobite monk Athanaël leaves his desert monastery to “rescue” courtesan Thaïs from a life of sin, in the process destroying her palace (no doubt full of priceless works of art). Thaïs promptly mortifies her flesh and dies while early Christianity’s answer to the Taliban has a crisis of faith. And the moral of the story is? I have no idea so it’s perhaps best to just lie back and soak up the sumptuosity.
This production is very pretty to look at. The scene has been shifted from the 3rd or 4th century to a sort of fin de siècle Alexandria. It’s bright and bold (for the most part). Renée looks fabulous and there is plenty more eye candy in the form of Ginger Costa-Jackson and Alyson Cambridge. Tom Hampson makes a very convincing grubby monk and Michael Schade is perfect as the playboy Nicias. The singing is first class and Jesús López-Cobos produces a suitably opulent sound from the Met orchestra.
The DVD is taken from one of the early Met HD broadcasts and picture and sound quality are really pretty good. One can tell how old this is because in the intro Placido Domingo bemoans the fact that he can’t sing Athanaël because he’s not a baritone. Video direction is by Gary Halvorson and it’s typical of his work though far from the most egregious example. Really there are just rather too many close ups. It is a bit odd though that he chooses to show Renée wandering around backstage during the meditation (very well played by David Chan). Bonus material is the usual Met broadcast rather unenlightening interviews. The booklet has a track listing and a generic essay on the work. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese.