Los Angeles Review by Willard Manus

Jules Massenet’s exotic opera THAIS was mounted recently by L.A. Opera in a lavish, if odd, production that highlighted the powerful singing voices of Nino Machaidze and Placido Domingo. The former, a soprano who debuted locally in 2009 with “The Elixir of Love,” acted and sang the role of the 4th-century Egyptian courtesan with a passionate intensity and beauty that were electrifying. And as the monk Athanael, Domingo was an equally commanding force, singing from start to finish in tireless, ever-surging fashion. Not bad for a 73-year-old who only lately has been taking on baritone roles.

The battle between the flesh and the spirit provides the theme for Massenet’s 1894 opera, which he and Louis Gallet adapted from the novel by Anatole France. Thais, decked out in Act One in some wildly ostentatious costumes that would not look out of place in a Las Vegas revue, is wearying of her decadent life as the mistress of her wealthy French lover Nicias (Paul Groves, also in good voice). Her looks are fading and she no longer takes pleasure in her lavish possessions, except for a hand-carved bust of Eros. This makes her fair game for the slightly-mad, God-obsessed monk

Athanael, who wanders in off the desert wearing rags and sandals, and sets out to save her soul.

Seemingly ascetic but quite clearly sexually attracted to the voluptuous Thais–though he doesn’t dare give in to his hidden desire–-Athanael leads Thais on an exhausting journey through the desert to Mother Albine’s convent (Milena Kitic), where she will do penance and be purged of all her sins.

German director Nicola Raab and her Swedish set and costume designer Johan Engels (collaborators on the original Finnish National Opera production) have made some bizarre choices: the monks are decked out in tails, the convent resembles a drive-in movie lot, and the dunes in the desert have brown nipples. Talk about the European mania for deconstructed art!

These aberrations, fortunately, did not affect Massenet’s lush, romantic score–or the singing by Machaidze, Domingo and company. Those qualities came through strongly and turned the evening into a triumph.

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