L.A. Opera redeemed themselves: good singing, great sets and costumes, and decent direction of an eccentric and challenging oddity.
I didn’t know what to expect. From what I had heard of the music, it sounded appealing, but the story sounded proto-Cecil B. DeMille: Christianity and sex in the declining Empire, amped up for maximum sensationalism.
But it turned out to be serious, fun and compelling.
I was surprised how modern the situation was. Thaïs and Athanaël are my neighbors. They are both evolving over the course of the opera. But at no time along their two parallel paths can they really connect. There are all kinds of links between them—erotic, intellectual, spiritual—but there is no moment in the opera when they are speaking the same language. Their tragedy is so 21st century that it makes Tristan and Isolde’s problems seem quaintly irrelevant.
A lot of credit goes to the decision to change the scene from Alexandria in Late Antiquity to Paris circa 1894, i.e. the time of the first performance. So instead of pretend Alexandrian revelers in fake togas, we had Parisian dandies and courtesans dressed up in Antique costumes: we get our dose of camp, plus verisimilitude and irony.
And this worked because the sets and costumes by Johan Engels were superb: the best things seen on the Dorothy Chandler stage in eons.
It’s normal for L.A. Opera sets to be so hideous that the most charitable response is to avert your gaze, but last Thursday night I saw a stage set I want to live in:
I hope Ikea will soon offer everything necessary to recreate the sitting-room of Thaïs from Act II. It wasn’t just that it was beautiful: it perfectly framed the confrontation between Thaïs and Athanaël. And then, during the most famous music of the whole opera, the orchestra Meditation interlude, the room slowly floated away from Thaïs, providing a beautiful visualization of her growing disenchantment with her old life.
The ingenuity was always practical. Engels devised solutions for tricky production problems, like the rotating landscape in Act III. It there was a bit of indulgence (why were the seats of the abandoned outdoor theater filled with dust-covered dandies?) but it cleverly accommodated the action’s abrupt location-changes.
Not that spectacle was skimped: there was a completely fantastic theater recreated on stage, the golden bird-feather dress of Thaïs, a Pierrot out of Aubrey Beardsley, and all extravagance you could desire, when it was called for:
Nino Machaidze obviously loved being Thaïs, played with the golden feathers of her dress like a kid (as Thaïs would), and made the most her part. However the secret of this opera is that Athanaël is the best role. Plácido Domingo of course knew this and ran with it. It was quite a performance. He was on stage almost every minute, and filled the hall with his voice, effortlessly and beautifully. I can’t wait to see what role he selects next.