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Thais has been relegated--not entirely unjustly--to the outskirts of the repertoire for ages. Massenet's for ages. Massent's 1894 foray into religious eroticism has a bountiful flow of lyrical French melody, but little of it except the famous "Meditation" (played exquisitely by concertmaster Terence Tam in Pacific Opera Victoria's season-opening production in October) is particularly memorable.

Visually and vocally, the two POV leads were ideally cast. Tall, willowy and elegantly clad in flowing, Andre Barbe-designed costumes, soprano Monica Whicher certainly looked the part of the sophisticated Alexandrian courtesan, Thai's. Baritone Aaron St Clair Nicholson as the monk, Athanael, bent on her salvation was fulsome of voice, intense of purpose and Whicher's vocal equal. Unfortunately, even by the Oct. 23 performance, the much-needed sexual chemistry between the two remained somewhere between chaste and platonic. This was unfortunate because their sinking was everything even Massenet could have hoped for.

Much closer to a fuller inhabitation of his role was Luc Robert as the brazenly hedonistic, yet eminently likeable, Nicias. With his jaunty swagger and clarion tenor, Robert was always entertaining as the 24-hour party animal and lusty connoisseur of Thais's charms.

Director Renaud Doucet certainly seemed to revel in those party scenes. It's Massenet's fault they're too long, but in Doucet's hands were at least lively and boisterous--with even a touch of raunchiness among Thais's retinue. If only he had steamed up the interaction between Whicher and Nicholson a bit.

Barbe's set--a stage-wide, all-seeing Eye of God, with raised platforms inscribed with ancient Greek and Egyptian characters--was evocative, compact and readily adaptable to the operas scenic requirements. Guy Simard's atmospheric lighting sensitively established, changed and intensified moods.

The orchestra sounded suave and polished under POV Artistic Director Timothy Vernon, whose canny sense of timing and obvious affection for Thais made its three-hours-including-intermissions glide by smoothly.

Thais may have been on the operatic periphery for decades, but has its devotees. They will, no doubt, be pleased to hear that a comeback of sorts seems to be gathering momentum: including POV's, lists four stagings worldwide this season, one of them, at the Met, to be broadcast live in movie theatres.
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Author:Jordan, Robert
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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