Athanaël (Plácido Domingo) and Thaïs (Nino Machaidze) in LA Opera's production of "Thaïs" (Robert Millard)
LA Opera premiered Jules Massenet’s “Thaïs” Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles.
“Thaïs,” which was first performed in Paris in 1894, takes place in Egypt and tells the story of the monk Athanaël and his attempt to convert Thaïs, a courtesan in Alexandria, to Christianity. Athanaël tells his fellow monks about his visions of Thaïs, and against their advice, decides to travel back to his hometown of Alexandria to find her.
He finds Thaïs, manages to convince her to convert and turn herself over to God and that she should rejoice at the fact of becoming God’s bride, which means spending the rest of her life as a prisoner. This quest, however, reveals the true reasons behind Athanaël’s “saving” of Thaïs – carnal lust and an overwhelming, selfish obsession. His mission proves to be successful in her religious transformation up until her death, but drives Athanaël into torturing despair, which he only realizes when it is too late.
Directed by Nicola Raab and conducted by Patrick Fournillier, “Thaïs” stars the legendary Plácido Domingo as Athanaël, Nino Machaidze as Thaïs, Paul Groves as the wealthy patron Nicias and Valentin Anikin as the elder monk Palemon. The production ran for a little over three hours with two intermissions. Although the story is somewhat depressing, is wasn’t without bits of irony and cynicism that provided much needed comical relief, and the audience caught on every time.
The stage and the different sets were magnificent and beautifully constructed. The lighting was perfect, in that, it was part of the set itself and provided stunning visual effects. The costumes were phenomenal and very vibrant, which added to the show’s aesthetic appeal. Over 50 items of jewelry were worn throughout by the performers, and it’s worth mentioning that Thaïs’ magnificent golden entrance costume required 9.5 yards of gold fabric, 10 yards of trim and approximately 96 rhinestones.
The individual performances were excellent, and the leads executed their monologues perfectly. Domingo and Machaidze did a phenomenal job in bringing their characters to life. Their voices conveyed the sense of tragic despair and self-doubt that are integral to this opera.
However, as an ensemble cast, the performance left something to be desired. The chemistry between the actors in the bigger scenes was almost non-existent. The scenes with Athanaël and his fellow monks were rather moving and powerful, but the scenes which featured Athanaël and Thaïs were somewhat weak. Domingo and Machaidze didn’t seem to have too much chemistry between them, which unfortunately affected how the opera as a whole was perceived. Unfortunately, at times, the acting itself seemed forced and lacked dynamic emphasis.
That said, “Thaïs” was entertaining overall and well worth revisiting. Its strong content and religious themes kept the audience surprisingly engaged throughout and raised interesting questions about morality and the extremes to which religious dogma can lead to when it involves matters of physical passion and lust.
“Thaïs” runs through June 7 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Downtown. For tickets or more information, visit laopera.org/thais.