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Thaïs | Jules Massenet

Thaïs  | Jules Massenet

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(Thaïs ) Director: John Cox, USA, 2008, French version / English and Czech subtitles, 201 min

Jules Massenet’s opera about the power of feminine allure and the desperation of male obsession has served as a showcase for a variety of great artists in the lead roles. Thaïs is an Egyptian courtesan and priestess of Venus whom the Christian monk Athanaël seeks to reform. While she ultimately achieves salvation, he falls prey to his growing lust for the woman. Although Massenet composed Thaïs for the Paris Opéra, where spectacle was often the order of the day, he wisely concentrated on the inner lives of the two lead roles. The result is an opera as seductive as its heroine, a fascinating story of two people locked in an opposing yet parallel metamorphosis. Massenet was sometimes accused by his contemporaries of indulging in musical sensuality, but his genius soared in works such as this where sensuality itself is the core issue at stake. He was well aided by a strong libretto in unrhymed free verse modeled on classical Greek poetry, that can be appreciated even without knowing French.

The Creators
Jules Massenet (1842–1912), a French composer wildly popular in his day, was noted for his operas, songs, and oratorios. His somewhat sentimental style lost popularity in the early 20th century, with only his romantic treasure Manon (1884) maintaining a steady place in the repertory. Many of his other operas, especially Werther (1892) and Thaïs, have found places for themselves in the repertory in the last few decades. The libretto for Thaïs was written by Louis Gallet (1835–1898), a prolific writer who provided other theatrical adaptations for composers such as Bizet and Saint-Saëns. The opera is based on a novel, considered scandalous in its day, by Anatole France (1844–1924), an influential French author and wit whose works epitomized his era’s sophistication and sense of irony.

The Setting
The opera takes place in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, and in the surrounding desert, in the fourth century A.D. Alexandria was a cosmopolitan city, while the harsh desert was the birthplace of the severe traditions of hermits and monks. The setting reflects the conflict of human passion and religious fervor that is at the core of the drama.

The Music
With Thaïs, Massenet wrote one of his most sinuously beautiful and psychologically perceptive scores. But the captivating musical effects are hardly gratuitous. The baritone’s Act I aria “Voilà donc la terrible cité” is a world premiere Paris Opera, March 16, 1895 stentorian denunciation of the city of Alexandria and everything associated with corrupt urban life. The broad phrases of the monk’s vocal lines make his righteous anger apparent, but the lavish orchestration before and underneath the singing suggest a latent attraction to everything he is ranting against. The heroine’s showpiece aria, Act II ’s “Dis-moi que je suis belle,” is a glittering occasion for vocal display, but this quality perfectly suits this particular moment in the drama, as Thaïs revels in her glitzy, superficial lifestyle. Her evolution is marvelously depicted in the famous “Méditation” between Acts II and III, an orchestral interlude carried by a solo violin whose seductive delicacy is emblematic of this refined work. Thaïs’s growth and maturity become apparent in the next act’s duet with the baritone: she now sings measured, stately phrases, while his disjointed lines parallel his psychological unraveling. It is one of opera’s most interesting depictions of two people at cross-purposes.

Thaïs at the Met
For some time in the early 20th century, much of the French repertory, including the operas of Massenet, was not very fashionable with New York audiences. It was therefore a daring and somewhat provocative move for the Met to stage this opera for the immensely popular Geraldine Farrar and star baritone Pasquale Amato in 1917. Maria Jeritza, the diva sensation of the post-war period, was given an entirely new, first-rate production in 1922, designed by Joseph Urban. After seven more performances in 1939, split between the American Helen Jepson and the Australian Marjorie Lawrence, the opera was shelved for almost four decades. It returned to the Met in 1978 for 17 memorable performances with Beverly Sills and Sherrill Milnes, directed by Tito Capobianco. Acclaimed for her interpretation of the title role, Renée Fleming stars in the Met’s new production this season.


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