Anderson gives 19th-century opera a sexy new twist

I don’t know Doug Anderson that well but I learned something new about him this past Friday; he’s not afraid to take on a challenge. To stage a production of a complex opera written in the 19th century, about a repressed monk and a promiscuous courtesan from ancient Egypt, and make it appealing to a modern audience, takes vision and some serious nerve.
I came to this conclusion after attending the opening night performance of his latest production, Thaïs, this past Friday. The first thing you see, when you enter the theater, is a starkly contemporary set design, featuring a monolithic portrait of a woman named Thaïs, looking a lot like Brittany Spears, or Madonna, flanked by a pair of mirrored walls. Designed by Doug Anderson, himself, the overall effect is futuristic, almost surreal. By juxtaposing all these time elements in such a dissonant fashion, he is asking us to take a fresh look at this obscure classic written by French composer Jules Massenet, and attempt to relate to our world today.
The story of opera is about the monk Athanaël, who chooses a life of celibacy after seeing Thaïs for the first time because he “must do penance for a sin I almost committed.” Thaïs, on the other hand, has squandered her life in hedonistic fashion, trading on her beauty and sexuality in exchange for power and prestige.
In the first scene, the mirrored walls open to reveal the inside of the monastery, where the magnificent tenors and baritones that make up the male chorus sing their praises to God. Really, I could have listened to them all night, but Athanaël was on a mission ordained by God to go and save Thaïs from her dissolute life. The other monks do their religious best to fill him with fear of the sinful world beyond their walls, but he is undeterred. Joshua Jeremiah brings Athanaël’s yearning for Thaïs and for God’s redemption in every note he sings, plaintive and hopeful; his vocal chords vibrating like the reeds in a clarinet. He travels to Alexandria, the urban den of iniquity, and the mirrored walls turn into video screens showing clips from sex-tinged advertisements and music videos.
Athanaël meets his old friend, wealthy Nicias, and tells him he is going to take Thaïs to a convent. Performed by James Flora with a comic touch and festive energy, Nicias looks like Puff Daddy, in his flamboyant costume. He laughs at his friend’s plan but he loves him, too, and sees him for what he really is. “Proud philosopher,” he sings, “the human soul is fragile.” The party scene in Act One is a showcase for the many talents of the supporting members of the cast. Rebecca Starr’s acrobatic pole performance practically steals the show.
When Thaïs finally makes her appearance, she does not disappoint. Massenet wrote this part for Sybil Sanderson, one of the few sopranos of her day that could actually perform the complex material. Melissa Shippen, our current Thaïs, has proven she is up to the task as well. Whenever the music took her voice to a lower register it was sex served up on a silver spoon. And the music! Emmanuel Plasson, the conductor, kept his orchestra in perfect balance with the singers and shifting drama of the scenes. Their rendition of “Mediation” was transcendent. It is still haunting me as I write. I recommend going to YouTube and finding YoYo Ma’s version of this classic, just to give you a taste of what is in store for you at Town Hall Theater.
In the scenes where Thaïs and Athanaël are battling for her soul are some of the most impressive from a purely technical point of view. They both reach the extremities of their ranges with ease, their voices soaring around each other as they come together and pull away, each afraid of the other’s influence.
Thaïs is finally ready to cast aside her empty life and follow Athanaël into the desert, but she still wants to honor Eros, the god she claims she never followed. She tells him she has sinned against Eros by manipulating her sexuality rather than honoring it, because Eros forbids a woman to give herself to anyone except in love. After all, she sings, “It is love that gives us a glimpse of heaven.”
Here is the crux of Massenet’s message, in my opinion. Somewhere between dogmatic piety and self-serving licentiousness is the possibility of redemptive, romantic love. But, alas, Athanaël doesn’t learn this until the bitter end. Just as Thaïs had to repent from her carnal lifestyle, so must Athanaël from his lonely, ascetic path as well.
It is easy to look around our world today and see the same struggle for a kind of love that can redeem us. I see it in the rantings of right wing hotheads and hear it in the lyrics of a bawdy rap song. There is a desperation underlying both of these extremes and it makes me want to bring the final message of Thaïs to them all, when Athanaël holds her dying in his arms and sings in his mournful tenor, “Nothing is true but life and the love of each other.” 

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