When it comes to religious eroticism, nothing beats Jules Massenet’s Thaïs, composed to a libretto by Louis Gallet and based on a novel by Anatole France. The action takes place in Alexandria and the Thebaid desert in Egypt in the fourth century A.D. Athanaël, a monk living in a monastic community of Cenobites, returns from Alexandra and admits to being disturbed by visions of a courtesan and priestess of Venus named Thaïs, whom he had seen many years ago in his native city of Alexandria.
He had been under her spell in his youth, but he now wants to return to Alexandria and convert Thaïs to Christianity. When he arrives in Alexandria he visits his old friend Nicias who reveals that he is Thaïs’ current lover, and that there will be a great feast this evening. He laughs upon hearing Athanaël’s plan and warn of the revenge of Venus. As the feast begins, Thaïs and Nicias sing a tender love duet, as this will be their last night together. Athanaël tells her that he has come to teach her “contempt for the flesh and love of pain.” His idea is rejected and Thaïs offends the monk by singing a seductive song, warning him against suppressing his human nature.
Jules Massenet: Thaïs, Air du Miroir “Dis moi que je suis belle”
Exhausted after the feast, Thaïs expresses dissatisfaction with her empty life and muses on the fact that one day, old age will destroy her beauty. Athanaël visits her unannounced, and her routine seduction has no apparent effect on him, but when he tells her that he loves her according to the spirit rather than the flesh, and that his love will last forever instead of a single night, it resonates with her. Intrigued, she asks him to teach her the ways of this love. He nearly succumbs to her physical charm, but succeeds in explaining to her that if she converts, she will gain eternal life. After a long meditation Thaïs changes her mind, and Athanaël demands that she destroy her home and everything in it. The citizens are unhappy of losing their idol, but with Nicias help, Thaïs and Athanaël escape the angry crowd.
Jules Massenet: “Meditation” from Thaïs
Thaïs and Athanaël travel through the desert on their way to the convent of Mother Albine. Thaïs is exhausted and broken, but Athanaël ruthlessly demands that she push on to do penance for her sins. They reach a spring, where Athanaël begins to feel pity rather than disgust for her, and they share a few moments of idyllic, platonic companionship as they rest. As they reach the convent, Thaïs thanks him for having brought her to salvation, and Athanaël suddenly realizes that he has accomplished his mission, but that he will never see her again. Athanaël has been back with the Cenobites for three months. In spite of prayer, fasting, and flagellation, he is unable to drive the physical image of Thaïs from his spirit. That night, Athanaël has a violently erotic dream of Thaïs, and voices tell him she is dying. He decides to return to the convent to steal her away from God. Feeling that existence is worth nothing without her, he recants all his vows and rushes off to find her. He reaches the convent and finds her on her deathbed. He tells her that all he taught her was a lie, that ‘nothing is true but life and the love of human beings,” and that he loves her. Blissfully unaware, she describes the heavens opening and the angels welcoming her into their midst. She dies, and Athanaël collapses in despair.
Jules Massenet: Thaïs (Beverly Sills, soprano; Sherrill Milnes, baritone; Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Richard van Allan, bass; Anne-Marie Connors, soprano; Ann Murray, mezzo-soprano; Norma Burrowes, soprano; Patricia Kern, mezzo-soprano; Brian Ethridge, bass; John Alldis Choir; New Philharmonia Orchestra; Lorin Maazel, cond.)
The opera was first performed at the Opéra Garnier in Paris on 16 March 1894, with American soprano Sibyl Sanderson in the title role. Sanderson apparently had a wardrobe malfunction, or did she? A strap holding up the gown of the full-figured soprano from Sacramento, the daughter of a former California Supreme Court chief justice, slipped or she let it slip. Sanderson finished the first act by seducing the monk Athanaël topless, as was reported to the “pleasure of the company, the composer, the crowd and the critics.” In addition, it has been whispered that Sanderson had been more than just a muse in Massenet’s life. In the event, the work immediately aroused intense debate. Contemporary opera critic considered Thaïs “beneath contempt, a shameless sand-and-sandals melodrama that mixed Egyptian erotica, pseudo-religiosity and sentimental kitsch into a trashy spectacle.” It was certainly deemed too steamy for the morals of the day, but musically speaking, it is a masterpiece of French lyric art. Massenet underscores the mixture of sensuality and religiosity with a dramatic structure based on opposites. “These contrasts are achieved through different musical processes, like the unusual confrontation between the soprano and the baritone, a unique combination of voices in the composer’s creations.” The music ensures the cohesion of each act by suggesting dreams, meditations or atmospheres. Massenet later revised the opera and this definite version premiered at the same opera house on 13 April 1898.
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Jules Massenet: Thaïs, “Te souvient-il du lumineux voyage”