If ever the term ‘opposites attract’ were applied to an opera, it should applied to Jules Massenet’s Thais. Two of the unlikeliest of characters will carry on an extended, obsessive and sublimated non-affair affair. It will inspire some of the composer’s most popular music, the Meditation for violin and orchestra, though the work as a whole has never quite become part of the repertory. It falls between two of his most well known works Werther and Cendrillion. We thought we would choose it for our recognition of the centenary of the death of the composer (1842-1912).
The elements of the plot are among the most intriguing and bizarre even among the wild children of Romantic Opera. The exotic and far away place and time in this case is Alexandria, in the fourth century. It is the birthplace of the now Cenobite monk Athanael who now lives in the desert near ancient Thebes. He has lately been plagued by dreams of the courtesan Thais. He argues with the old monk Palemon that he must leave the monastery and follow what he sees as the meaning of this dream. In it is the woman Thais, whom he explains that he must now save from her dissolute life. In fact he has come to confront an old, unrequited desire; it was fleeing from Thais and Alexandria where the monk was born that he took up life in the monastery. Despite warnings he follows his obsession. He finds and converts Thais, the moment of conversion in fact described by the Meditation music.
What follows is a flight from her lovers and immolation of her previous life; a wandering in the desert and finally embracing life in a cloister. Their flight and hardships are a strange ascetic dance of love. This arduous series of events however to his astonishment solves nothing. Still obsessed and later doubting that his rejection of the flesh, separation from Thais and subsequent loneliness were not a mistake he returns to her, too late, to confess his tortured love.
"Shame! Horror! Darkness eternal! Lord! Lord, save me!"
She, as he attempts to confess his long denied passion, is lost in an ecstatic vision of the world to come, dying in a religious rapture.
The back story of the opera is equally intriguing and bizarre. Massenet loved the American born singer Sibyl Sanderson (1864-1903).She would premiere the role and later leave her adopted Paris to marry a Cuban millionaire. She would then never be able to return to her career and sink into alcoholism and depression; she would die in Paris of pneumonia at 38. She would survive long enough to prepare the way for her successor, Mary Garden.
Tune in to this Saturday Afternoon at the Opera as we celebrate Jules Massenet with his lush and exotic Thais. Here at noon on KPAC and KTXI.