Massenet: Thaïs - Davis
Chandos CHSA 5258 (2 discs)
Classical - Opera
Joshua Hopkins (Athanaël)
Andrew Staples (Nicias)
Nathan Berg (Palémon)
Neil Aronoff (A servant)
Erin Wall (Thaïs)
Liv Redpath (Crobyle)
Andrea Ludwig (Myrtale)
Emilia Boteva (Albine)
Stacey Tappan (La Charmeuse)
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis, conductor
Following acclaimed performances at the Edinburgh Festival and then in Melbourne, Sir Andrew Davis’s recording of Massenet’s opera Thais features an outstanding cast, and exceptional performances from his Toronto forces. Written shortly after the premiere of his masterpiece Werther, Thais was composed for the Californian soprano Sybil Sanderson who gave the premiere at the Paris Opéra in 1894. Sanderson's performance was a triumph, but the opera itself had a mixed reception.
After Massenet revised it in 1898 it went on to worldwide success in the years leading up to World War I and has enjoyed continuous and growing success in our own time. The role of Thais has drawn many great artists, including Mary Garden, Geraldine Farrar, Maria Jeritza, Leontyne Price, Beverley Sills, and Renée Fleming.
According to the Financial Times, ‘Erin Wall is the Thais of one’s dreams, wielding a soprano of radiance, pristine beauty and tingling top notes”, and she is joined on the recording by Joshua Hopkins in the role of Athanaël, while Nicias is sung by Andrew Staples. Recorded in Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall, following live performances, in Surround Sound and available on hybrid SACD.
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Review by John Broggio - August 29, 2020
This opera is known almost exclusively for the Meditation that segues between the first and second Tableau of Act 2, almost always with piano or truncated orchestral accompaniment. Although this work doesn't have the same musical narrative of other works of the same era (say Otello or Tosca), it is nonetheless a very enjoyable wallow in beautiful music that is somewhat monochrome compared to masterpieces of this form (the death of Thaïs, despite committed conducting and playing, sounds positively jaunty compared to, say, the Wolf's Glen scene in Weber: Der Freischütz - Janowski or Weber: Der Freischütz - Kleiber).
Recorded from performances in front of an impressively silent audience (presumably with a few patches here or there), this set makes the best possible case for Massenet's opera. A quick note on editions, this uses the revised text of 1898 (some orchestral music excised and ballet music replaced). Those familiar with the (CD) recordings starring (in recording order) Moffo, Sills or Fleming in the title role will notice that the Act 2 ballet music is also cut here (even though there is ample room for it on disc 2) - a minor gripe!
There is scarcely a weak link in the singing although this opera stands or falls on Thaïs and Athanaël. Erin Wall as Thaïs is magnificent and, however taxing the music is, never sounds taxing in the least - it is a radiant sound that caresses the ear most seductively. With equal characterisation, the Athanaël of Joshua Hopkins is also superb, perhaps most vividly in the first act where he experiences revulsion of his dreams (Act 1). The other roles are relatively minor and the engineering team takes delight in their spatial positioning in multi-channel listening that sensitively enhances the drama. The chorus is also audibly engaged with their role in the action.
Regarding the Meditation: the 5 and a half minute section of this opera is played a lot (there are more than 10 versions on hi-res media alone at the time of writing) but seldom heard in the full delicacy of its orchestration as it is presented here. Crucially the final bars are accompanied by wordless chorus, a most magical effect that is unheard outside of the opera house and, for those that enjoy the Meditation, worth acquiring the set for in itself. Here, the concertmaster Jonathan Crow is just as inspired as the everyone else and delivers the beautiful solo with rapt simplicity. Crow's colleagues are equally inspired under Sir Andrew Davis throughout; the woodwind soloists deserve praise for their many and delightful solos but as with the singers, this performance finds everyone on fine form.
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