Story, staging, singing fuels a hit

Editor’s note: Doug Anderson’s contemporary staging of the Massenet opera “Thaïs” opened at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater last Friday and will be performed at 8 p.m. on June 14, 15 (with alternate cast) and 16. Here are responses to the work from two reviewers.
In its most ambitious production yet, the Opera Company of Middlebury (OCM) has staged Jules Massenet’s 1894 opera “Thaïs” in daring 21st century form. Simply put, the show is stunning, combining music, spectacle and emotionally powerful tragic theater. In every detail, including the re-translation of the libretto into contemporary English for projected supertitles, OCM has successfully transposed the spirit of long-ago 400 and 1894 into our 2012.
The opera is a love triangle between the ascetic monk Athanaël (tenors Joshua Jeremiah and John Maynard), the fallen woman Thaïs (sopranos Melissa Shippen and Colleen Daly), and God Himself. It opens in a Christian monastery in the fourth century AD. Striking the tone for the rest of the production, the monks appear not in brown robes with rope belts but in modern dress: white shirts, dark slacks and narrow black ties, like today’s earnest young Mormon missionaries, radiating their sacrifice and shared purpose. During a prayerful evening meal of bread, water, honey and tea, they wait worriedly for their beloved brother Athanaël, late returning from visiting his native Alexandria.
Unlike Massenet’s better-known “Manon” and “Werther,” “Thaïs” is rarely staged. The lead soprano role is so demanding, both musically and dramatically, that few singers can manage it. Rhode Island vocal coach Eden Casteel explains: “You have to be worldly yet innocent, and have terrific high notes, incredible stamina, and the ability to darken the sound when necessary.”
Yet OCM has found not one but two worthy singers to play Thaïs, and were equally fortunate in other roles. From among 500 submissions and auditions, artistic director Doug Anderson and maestro Emmanuel Plasson were able to double-cast the top three roles. (The Friday, June 15, performance showcases the alternate cast.) Shippen’s acting chops, seductive voice and soaring high notes, coupled with Jeremiah’s fiery confidence and vocal power make their doomed love not only urgent and believable but enviable. You’ll want to be one or the other of them.
Athanaël arrives back at the monastery in a holy fever. Alexandria wallows in corruption and filth, he blames the courtesan prostitute Thaïs, and he feels called by God to intervene. Before his brothers, and against the advice of the abbot Palemon (powerful bass Branch Field), Athanaël vows to rescue Thaïs from soul-killing sin. He speeds back to Alexandria to enlist the aid of a childhood friend, Nicias (tenors James Flora and Andrew Spady).
Luscious singing is so important in opera that the dramatic story is often lost, but that’s not how Doug Anderson rolls. “I treat every opera as if I’m directing a play by Tennessee Williams,” he says. “I stress honesty, natural responses, communication and emotional commitment.” The intimate size of the 232-seat Town Hall Theater also focuses the dramatic heat, says Shippen, whose spectacular duets with Jeremiah as Athanaël are the heart of the show. “In a larger hall, we would have to angle outwards toward the audience. But here, when we sing to each other, we can look directly into each other’s faces.”
Athanaël’s old friend Nicias, though skeptical that Thaïs can be reformed, and certainly jealous that anyone else might love her, agrees to help. A playboy hedonist, he is one of Thaïs’s biggest customers. His mansion is a glitzy dance club, complete with red velvet rope and a fawning entourage, including the burly bouncer, played convincingly by bass/baritone Justin Beck. Two slaves, Crobyle (soprano Megan Pachecano) and Myrtale (mezzo Tynan Davis), in sequined minidresses, wait on him hand and foot. Nicias invites Athanaël to a party where Thaïs will appear that very night. When Nicias orders the girls to pry the monk out of his drab habit and into some party clothes, the tormented holy man recoils from their touch.
Burning with God’s love and anger, the monk confronts the whore. After first resisting, followed by a long lyrical meditation on her lost innocence, she abandons her shameless ways and agrees to enter a convent. Her absence spoils the party, but Nicias, not one to let down his guests, introduces Le Charmeuse, superbly acted by coloratura Valerie Venzant as a fading star who can still hit the high notes, and with the virtuosic support of Pachecano and Davis actually pulls off her performance despite being falling-down drunk.
Nicias also presents a dancer. Although this streamlined production has dropped several of the ballet sequences usually found in French opera, one dance remains, and it is one of the most delightful moments in the show. Performed by the gymnastic and catlike Rebecca Starr, it is a startlingly sensuous and quite modern dance — I won’t spoil the surprise.
Even as Athanaël leads Thaïs across the desert to the nunnery, he falls in love with her. After delivering her into the welcoming hands of abbess Albine (mezzo Rachel Selan), he realizes that he has saved her soul yet broken his own heart. He renounces his vows, repudiates God, Christ and heaven, and returns to his love, but he is too late. The opera ends in a deathbed love duet, the two at cross-purposes but with equal intensity. As Thaïs enters into pure golden heaven, she leaves Athanaël in his loveless hell and much of the audience in tears.
Tickets are still available, but don’t delay, the first two shows were sold out. See it if you can. This “Thaïs” has put OCM on the map and will be remembered for years to come. 

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