The eyes of Osiris

Boston Lyric Opera’s Thaïs, Emmanuel Music’s The Magic Flute
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  May 2, 2006

SEX OR RELIGION? Massenet seems to want to have his cheesecake and eat it too.
SEX OR RELIGION? Massenet seems to want to have his cheesecake and eat it too.
Jules Massenet composed two operas about the relationship between a beautiful voluptuary and a man of the cloth, both of which take us from the high life of a cosmopolitan sin city to a desert where the heroine dies. Manon (1884) is a masterpiece of intricate psychological detail and ravishing music; Thaïs (1894), which ends Boston Lyric Opera’s “Diva Season” (Shubert Theatre through May 9), is closer to kitsch — filled with orgies and faux religiosity and not nearly so many good tunes. In his program note, stage director Renaud Doucet makes serious claims for Thaïs — that it’s an opera of spiritual questioning and fanaticism that forces men to deny their humane instincts. But in this story of a monk obsessed with converting a gorgeous actress/courtesan (“Priestess of Venus”) in fourth-century Alexandria, religion and sex are hard to separate. The composer seems to want to have his cheesecake and eat it too. (It’s not for nothing that some wags pronounce Thaïs — Ta-EES — “Thighs.”) The most memorable music isn’t even vocal but the irresistibly soupy “Meditation” for violin solo and accompanying harp — a familiar encore piece from countless violin recitals. So Thaïs has largely fallen out of the standard repertoire, though occasional sopranos still like a go at it. (The last Boston performance was on a Metropolitan Opera tour in the 1970s; it starred A-list diva Beverly Sills.)

Doucet and his set and costume designer, Andre Barbe, designed a tacky but interesting production for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which BLO has imported. We watch the action through a large eye-shaped cutout (“Welcome to CBS,” my companion whispered), with a smaller, parallel eye cutout at the back of the stage. They’re the eye of Osiris and also “the inner eye that allows Thaïs to lift her spirit and yield to peace.” Thaïs’s major aria is about mirrors, so glittering Egyptian-eye mirrors fill her apartment. The costumes are colorful and fun, but not the ones for the major characters. The cœnobite monks seem to be draped and hooded in ratty bath mats, more like Druids than edge-of-the-Nile Christians. In her strapless sheath, Thaïs looks as if she might be on her way to a 1960s Oscar ceremony. At the climax of the first act, she drops her top to reveal a gold bra that sends the monk Athanaël into paroxysms of erotic guilt.

Doucet’s staging is generally uninspired and sometimes silly. (Why do so many directors make performers pretend to be whispering to one another during crowd scenes? Opera is seldom “realistic” — since everything a major character has to say is sung, any display of “small talk” trivializes that character.) His worst moments are an orgy in which everyone runs around giggling (do people ever giggle during an orgy?) and the scene of Thaïs’s spiritual transformation. It surely would have been kinder to soprano Kelly Kaduce, an actress more enthusiastic than inward, to lower the curtain during the playing of the “Meditation” rather than make us watch her hammy attempt to depict her entire lifestyle changing before our very eyes. Could anyone make this convincing? Especially while perched on a levitating bed (she’s being uplifted, get it?) that finally descends with a clumsy thump.

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