Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Bad Choices

A Christian monk, resting in the desert outside 4th century Alexandria, has a wet dream and so sets out to possess the subject of his dream for himself God. She, alas, is a courtesan and a priestess of Venus, and she determines to convert him to the ways of the flesh. They both succeed, but the fruits of their success are that she finds joy in death while he finds misery in living.

No, readers, it's not straight porn (eww), it's the basic plot of Thaïs. Add in some of the most gorgeous music and singing imaginable, and you have the recent production by the Metropolitan Opera.

I have no idea whether Massenet meant to write a paean to piety or a condemnation of fundamentalist fervor, but I reckon you can take your pick. I have to admit that within five minutes of the curtain rising, I was rolling my eyes at Athenaël: oh, sure, you're interested in her soul. And Thaïs, sweetie, boredom is not a sufficient reason to give up an obscenely lucrative career as a sex worker to go live (and die) in solitude in the desert. With what Nicias was paying you, you could easily have retired. Or at least taken a nice vacation.

Will had warned me that there would be nothing in the way of eye candy in this production. I thought he was joking because, well, monks in the desert: what's not to love? But he was right: the monks were in heavy brown robes and dreadlocks. In the desert. I don't know who made that brilliant decision, but it was a bad one. (Renée Fleming said that in some productions, Thaïs might actually fall for Athenaël but then she quipped that if that were going to happen in this production, Thomas Hampson would have had to change his hair.) Most of the singers playing the monks could easily have pulled off the gauzy white robes and short cropped hair that would have been more appropriate to the setting. The production designer must be a breeder. Certainly, there was no shortage of cleavage on display from the female singers.

Despite my utter inability to understand why someone would choose religion over sex, I don't want to give the impression that I didn't like Thaïs. There's a lot to like about it: it has beautiful music, the male lead is a baritone, and the plot -- by opera standards, at least -- hangs together and is easy to follow. I was going to add that it's relatively short, but that's not so much the case after you've added in the seventy or so minutes of intermissions that stretch the overall running time to 3:20.

The performance itself was stellar. I reckon that if there were more sopranos who could sing as well as Renée Fleming sings, Thaïs would become a part of the standard repertory. Thomas Hampson was also terrific, and the two of them were terrific together.

I know that what I'm about to say would be considered blasphemy by opera queens everywhere, but I think I enjoyed the production more by seeing the HD simulcast in a movie theater than I would have liked seeing it live. The camera work was terrific (Whoa! They're actually acting!), and there were a lot of extra features. Placido Domingo was the MC for the simulcast, and when the curtain fell on the first act, Ms. Fleming (who, I must say, is very charmingly down to earth) walked off the stage and talked with him for a few minutes. After the second act, both she and Mr. Hampton talked with Mr. Domingo. Because of the additional content, the intermissions at the movie theater were cut to twenty minutes: so much more pleasant than the thirty-five-minute intermissions at the Met. It's a much shorter trip to the movie theater than to the Kennedy Center, and parking is easy. Also, you can wear jeans.

And then there's the cost factor. When I go to the Met (which I always enjoy), I typically drop about $250 for a pair of tickets that are decent but not great. On Saturday, I spent $40 for a pair of tickets and not quite $15 for a monster bucket of popcorn and a similarly monster Diet Coke. (Popcorn at the opera: how great is that?) I don't know what the worldwide audience is for the simulcasts, but it seems like a great way to reach a large number of people who would otherwise not be able to attend.

Of course, you can always wait for it to show up on PBS (probably during pledge week, alas) or Netflix, but I recommend getting a group together and occupying a block of seats in the theater. The rest of the season is also very impressive. Unfortunately, a lot of what I'd most like to see falls during tax season, but I'll probably take in at least a couple of the remaining productions.


Will said...

Aha, you solved the snacks at the opera thing, just as I thought an enterprising guy like you would do.

I wear jeans to the opera sometimes, nice and clean jeans to e sure, but jeans nevertheless. I NEVER accepted the crap that you have to dress and put on your jewelry for the opera as some public appearance/social thing. I insist that opera should be and is a popular art form. During Verdi and Wagner's time, it certainly was: revolutions were plotted and in one case, actually begun in opera houses (the fall of the Belgian monarchy).

Anyway, I'm delighted you had a good time. Renee Fleming has one of the great voices and Thais has become HER role even if she didn't stage an "accident" like the first Thais in 1894: Sybil Sanderson whose gown straps failed revealing her bare breasted to the delight and feigned shock of le tout Paris.

Jason said...

I remember this event in Cambridge Mass years ago when this shrieking voice of a crunchy middle aged woman asked a bunch of visiting Tibetan monks at a Buddhist studies conference how they could forsake the joy and exhilaration of sexual climax and post coital liberation when the previous 1 hour was all about peace, giving and general feel-good asceticism. The whole lecture hall turned dead quiet from bustling with chattering. Then the head abbot, gingerly with an archaic smile said, "if you achieve climax and stay there steadily for many times a day, there is no need to engage in sexual activities any more."

I was like, Man, Christian monasteries may have hotter meat, the Buddhists sure have sexier minds!

The Blackout Blog said...

A baritone lead? Nice! I need to see this.