Thais by Massenet.
Opera Australia. Town Hall. July 23
Massenet’s Thais (1994) is one of those operas whose only excuse today is that no one takes it seriously except for the music.
Thais, a “courtesan”, makes the journey from sin to salvation, while her alleged saviour, Athanael, discovers desire and renounces abstinence.
The message is that Athanael’s fundamentalism – he forces her to destroy not just her worldly wealth but a beautiful artwork because it is a statue of Venus given by a lover – went too far by denying not just sex but love.
As with Dumas’ La dame aux Camelia (subject of Verdi’s La Traviata), Massenet’s 1884 opera Manon and Zola’s novel Nana, its real meaning, perhaps, is anxiety in late 19th century France about prostitution as women’s one option for economic independence. Initially, Thais defiantly resists both Athanael and her lover Nicias because she wants to remain Thais, the courtesan.
After their humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, there was a concern that prostitution had “emasculated” French society. Some of the more enlightened artworks also pointed out that it wasn’t great for the women either.
None of that, however, diminished the enjoyment of the capacity audience for this concert performance in the Town Hall, while Opera Australia’s usual stomping ground, the Joan Sutherland Theatre in the Opera House, is closed for renovation.
As anticipated, it provided a glorious vehicle for the coloured vocal freshness and fluid expressivity of Nicole Car as Thais, particularly as her voice opened out in the third act.
In the first act she created a sound of haunting lonely beauty and quiet warmth and the second created gorgeous colours in passages of seductive exoticism. Early on the high register was less focused but found wonderful ease in the final scenes with Canadian tenor Etienne Dupuis as Athanael. His voice had a sharply defined edge at the start matching the character’s severity. Musically it was particularly rewarding, however, in moments of vocal warmth and flexibility.
Richly bearded with a wonderfully rounded mahogany bass to match, Richard Anderson as Palemon, the senior monk, presented a worryingly beguiling voice of patriarchy, while Simon Kim sang the lover Nicias’ part with a tenor of light, focused intensity. As the Mother Superior of the last act, Sian Pendry sang truly with an attractively open, clear sound. Anna-Louise Cole and Anna Yun’s liquid mocking laughter at Athaniel in the first act was delightful and richly deserved. Jonathan McCauley as the Servant blustered with appropriate indignation.
Massenet’s musical style creates an effective duality by mixing pompous piety with orientalism, which conductor Guillaume Tourniaire realised with finesse and unswerving attention to subtle nuance. It was a delight to hear in glorious detail the professionalism of Opera Australia Orchestra and Chorus on open stage and choir stall, unmasked by pit or set. Thais’s best known tune goes not to a singer but to a violin solo, which leader Jun Yi Ma played with a beautifully light yet full tone, streaked with golden astringency.