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Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Jules Massenet (1842-1912), prolific composer of French grand opera, penned a total of 34 in his lifetime, but only a precious few have managed to earn a spot in the standard repertoire. A check of performance statistics worldwide (2004-2018) shows Werther (1892) to be the most popular at 50th place among all operas, followed by Marion (1884) at No. 89.

Thais (1894) on the other hand has fallen on hard times. Once a popular piece with audiences (not to mention the many prima donnas who used it as an ideal star vehicle), it's hanging on for dear life on the fringes of the core repertoire at 167th place. With its theme of the struggle between the spirit and the flesh, Thais is seen as old fashioned today. I argue it's a bum rap--after all, we don't hear the same criticisms leveled against Wagner's Tannhauser.

Musically, Thais is a gem. Even the casual listener would likely recognize the "Meditation," the famous violin solo. The extended final scene between Thai's and Athanael represents Massenet at his most dramatically acute and melodically inspired. Thais received 46 performances at the Met up to the start of WWII when it abruptly disappeared, only to resurface some 40 years later in 1978 as a star vehicle for Beverly Sills. Since then Renee Fleming has also had great success in the role at the Met.

Thais didn't make it to Canada until 2003, under conductor Bernard Labadie at Opera de Montreal. To my knowledge, it has yet to receive a staged production in English Canada. So it was a real occasion to have these two Toronto Symphony Orchestra performances, albeit in concert form, under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis. The cast was a strong one, led by soprano Erin Wall in the title role and baritone Joshua Hopkins as Athanael.

Opening night (Nov. 7th) was musically memorable with Davis lavishing care and affection on the perfumed score, and with all the principals in great form. As French grand opera goes Thais is quite short at 2 1/2 hours with some cuts. One could argue that this opera needs to be staged to fully experience its opulent exoticism and grandeur, as it was in the Mel's sumptuous production starring Fleming and Thomas Hampson.

Despite a large cast, the core of the work is the intimate love story involving the two main characters--the ascetic monk Athanael and the courtesan Thai's. While Athanael successfully converts Thai's to a life of religious chastity, he ends up falling in love with her. To do it justice you need two singers with superb voices and believable looks. The TSO scored on both counts.

Will combines a fresh and silvery lyric soprano of bright timbre with the requisite persona] beauty to make an ideal Thai's; she should sing it again in a staged production. Here she sang affectingly, with plenty of chiaroscuro and nuance, and with particularly lovely mezza uoce. Her mirror aria was a winner, as were her three wild laughs. Her only glitch was when she fell short on the two high D's in the final duet.

Hopkins sang very well as Athanael; in fact, better than I've ever heard him. Now a fully matured artist, his tone has darkened and gained in dramatic impact. Complemented by his naturally dignified stage presence, he presented an excellent Athanael. That said, I wished there were more interactions between him and Wall--yes, even in a concert performance. There was zero attempt to semi-stage this show, and it's a pity.

It's curious that Massenet seems to cast baritones as the heroes in many of his operas, while tenors are relegated to supporting status. British lyric tenor Andrew Staples sang strongly as Nicias, managing to make the most of his few brief moments in the sun. Canadian bass Nathan Berg made a rare appearance in Toronto, bringing sonorous tone and gravitas to Palemon.

The rest of the cast did full justice to their respective roles. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was its typical, magnificent self 1--I was particularly struck by their humming of the da capo section of the "Meditation" violin solo. I don't recall hearing this when I saw the Met performance, and it certainly never happens when it's played as a set piece--a truly sublime moment. Through it all Davis showed his love for this piece, which he jokingly calls "Massenet's Thighs!"

Caption: Joshua Hopkins (Athanael) & Erin Wall in the title role of TSO's Thais
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Author:So, Joseph
Publication:Opera Canada
Article Type:Opera review
Geographic Code:9THAI
Date:Dec 22, 2019
Words:741
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