Friday, December 19, 2008

The Renée Fleming Show

Composed by Jules Massenet
Directed by John Cox
Renée Fleming’s costumes by Christian Lacroix
Conducted by Jesús López-Cobos
Starring Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson, Michael Schade

The Metropolitan Opera
West 62nd and 65th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues
(212) 362-6000
Performances on December 8, 11, 17, 20, 23, 27, 30, 2008; January 2, 5, 8, 2009

Fleming as Thais (photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
A tuneful if insubstantial opera about a beautiful Egyptian courtesan saved from sin by the monk who converts her, Jules Massenet’s Thaïs has been brought to the Met as a vehicle for superstar soprano Renée Fleming, in a new production by John Cox.

Massenet’s music is certainly pleasant throughout, even sensual at times, although the aural nods to Wagner pall after awhile. The composer also knows his way around a good tune when he gets hold of one, as the continuous reprises of the meltingly lovely solo violin line, “Meditation,” prove throughout the second and third acts. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts, for the creaky plot (probably risqué in its day) only provides dramatic underpinning for the two leads, Thaïs and Athanaël, the latter of whom is embodied with sufficient musicality by a nobly suffering Thomas Hampson.

Fleming says that the role of Thaïs was written for her voice, and she’s right: the soprano is in stunning vocal command throughout, easily tossing off a high C from a balcony early on, and continuing her passionate, poignant performance until the tragic end, her velvety voice spinning Massenet’s musical yarn into gold. That Fleming is a diva giving her all for the audience is also apparent in Christian Lacroix’s luscious gowns that she elegantly wears during the evening.

The less said about Cox’s production–imported from Chicago–the better; it’s one of those appalling visual stews where abstract and realistic sets, and period and modern costumes, trip over each other. Just when you thought what’s onstage couldn’t get any more absurd, along comes the final scene, when Thaïs is dying in a convent. At least she’s supposed to be: except that Cox has the poor woman seated on a heavenly throne as Athanaël and the other nuns look up at her as she sings her final aria. The ultimate absurdity is reached when Hampson has to climb to embrace Fleming as Thaïs dies—how much more touching this finale would have been if it were played as written, rather than through a meddling director’s “improvements.”

Jesús López-Cobos conducts the Met Orchestra and Chorus in a luscious account of Massenet’s lovely score, which ultimately takes a back seat to the Renée Fleming Show. But what a show it is!

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