It is no secret that in spite of getting trained in expensive colleges and universities, musicians receive a very limited education. As a result they befriend other musicians, talk shop and know preciously little about anything else.
Three decades ago I decided that a certain young woman was not going to be like most of our colleagues. I had every intention of sharing my life with her and I did not want to end up with a music nerd. It wasn't an easy task, but after all these years my better half is well versed in literature, philosophy and even history. Geography is going to be next on the list, although already she is far more knowledgeable than most Americans in this subject.
Because of my native country's bloody history with its gigantic neighbor, I hardly qualify as a Russophile. Yet some of my favorite creative artists have come from there and thus my first attempts to introduce the young lovely lady to great literature were with Russian authors. The world they describe is closely related to the one in Yiddish literature, after all, and she could learn about her own roots. Later the literary discoveries were followed by German greats, and finally the French which my spouse has developed a real fondness of. After Stendhal and Proust came Anatole France. I wasn't surprised to find a library DVD of Massenet's opera Thaïs in the house the other day. The libretto by Louis Gallet is based on France's book and the author thought that it followed his story exceptionally well, even though the name of the male protagonist, monk Paphnuce, was changed to Athanaël. Soon Massenet's glorious melodies and harmonies made my wife fall asleep, so I watched the video myself. Actually it was a short nap and we enjoyed most of the opera together.
This is a beautifully executed Italian production, recorded in Venice eight years ago. Like in every good French opera, ballet plays a pivotal role in Thaïs. In this staging much of it includes nudity, but it isn't offensive in the least bit, and the plot is sexually strongly charged anyway. When the famous Meditation melodie is played for the first time by the solo violin (excellent Roberto Baraldi), the beautiful prima ballerina (Letizia Giuliani) performs a most seductive dance. I wish America wasn't such a prudish place; otherwise I would make every student working on the piece watch this scene. Yes, everyone's eyes would no doubt pop out, but the meaning of the gorgeous Meditation would become instantly clear.
Massenet wrote the lead role for an American soprano Sybil Sanderson, from Sacramento. Her voice must have been quite incredible as she had a range of three octaves and could double as a coloratura with ease. A true Frenchman, Massenet soon became the 20+-year-old's lover. In this production the role of Thaïs is sung by Eva Mei who performs it quite beautifully except for the very highest register which tends to sound a bit forced. Michele Pertusi as Athanaël is most convincing with a fabulous bass-baritone, and portrays like a great actor the monk's eventual mad lust for the former priestess of Venus. Their roles have been completely reversed as she has now found eternal love in Christianity and is waiting to enter Heaven.
All in all this video is so well done that it is hard to believe one is watching a live performance. The orchestra of Teatro La Fenice di Venezia plays the way only an Italian pit orchestra can. If the violins are slightly unsure of their pitch when the music has lots of flats in the key signature, the overall spirit and joy of musicianship more than makes up for it. The conductor, Marcello Viotti, shares his surname with one of the greatest violinist-composers in history and is well worth the expectations such a name causes. The chorus and the ballerinas are truly World Class (how I hate that expression!) and again prove how essential it is that the ballet corps is part of the opera company. The French would not have it any other way and in most European opera houses this is a reality. Naturally the ballet can perform outside of opera productions and not every opera calls for dancers, but even then the groups can share a great pit orchestra.
Although some of the greatest music has been written for it, in general I am not a great fan of opera. Perhaps this has to do with my dislike of the people who come to a production premiere just to show off their latest dresses, furs and other signs of a pretentious lifestyle. Often they have absolutely no interest in the singing and playing. My first experience with opera was a very pleasant one: as a boy I saw Così fan tutte in Stockholm on a small stage of a royal castle. It was utterly charming and the little orchestra, wearing powdered wigs, played quite well. The other extreme was a long time ago at the Met in New York. I was in the audience with a well-known European conductor who had never been to that opera house before. It was Mozart again but this time Don Giovanni. It was definitely an off-afternoon for the company: if anything could go wrong, it did. In the second act a technical glitch caused an additional intermission of over 20 minutes. Singing was substandard and all wrong for Mozart; my knowledgeable guests were most disappointed, almost angry. Mozart is tricky: it has to be just right in order to be enjoyable.
So, I don't follow the news about the world of opera religiously. I did, however, read ten days ago a well-thought-out article by Anne Midgette in the Washington Post. In it she laments the fact that completely new operas are an increasingly endangered species as they are too expensive for the demand. A production recently on this coast of the continent became very costly to the company, forcing them to save on staging performances this coming season. Many of the few remaining critics of classical music are advocates for new music and loudly complain about the "safe" programming of late. Yes, one can insert a world premiere as a part of an orchestra concert but no conductor or manager would be foolish enough to dedicate an entire subscription program to new music. It has its fans, among others composer-wannabees, but it is difficult to gather more than a few hundred listeners for such an event. Today's composers also like their music loud, in a "bang-bang, tank-you-Mam" style, requiring extra players and not fully utilizing the existing ones, such as large string sections. Orchestras and groups perform such repertoire in smaller halls. Perhaps opera companies should venture outside of their large auditoriums and do similar versions in suitable locations. Most universities with sizeable music departments have such venues; I don't see any reason why they would refuse to share that space, especially if the professional company would produce something utilizing some the school's talent, both faculty and students.
Time to take out the violin and play the Meditation, this time with new images in my head!
Eva Mei as Thaïs © Dynamic slr