Palau de les Arts
Plácido Domingo apparently needs to demonstrate, night after night, that he will never stop venturing into new territory. Athanaël, the tortured ascetic of Massenet's Thaïs, is not only Domingo's 137th role in a career that spans more than half a century; in line with the tenor's latest artistic choices, it is a character that is more challenging dramatically than musically. Valencia and Madrid, the two "Domingo houses" in Spain, reserve a spot on the calendar every year for his projects — those operas that are feasible only because of his involvement. In addition to the current Massenet rarity at the Palau de Les Arts (seen Mar. 31), Spain will hear in upcoming seasons a new Simon Boccanegra and the local premiere of Il Postino at the Teatro Real in Madrid, as well as Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac and Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride in both houses.
Athanaël falls entirely in Domingo's present comfort zone — a baritone role with thrilling forays into tenor ground and occasional loud, sustained notes that show the tenor's extraordinary vocal longevity. The character is a religious zealot, a member of a Christian sect in fourth-century Egypt who ventures into the sinful city of Alexandria to convert the beautiful courtesan Thaïs. A deeply unsympathetic character, who preaches a harsh, take-no-prisoners version of early Christianity, Athanaël is at center stage in every one of the seven scenes. Domingo's magnetic presence made the opera a very current reminder of the dangers of religious extremism and intolerance.
Domingo's Thaïs was Malin Byström, a very young Swedish soprano who won favorable attention as Thaïs at Gothenburg Opera in 2010, and who made her Met debut late last year as Marguerite in Faust. A svelte blonde beauty with the figure of a dancer, Byström is a consummate actress, who made the character's passage from sinner to saint fluid and believable. She commands a pristine soprano of distinctive color and strength. Her top register still needs developing, but in this most difficult character, Byström showed considerable promise and proved a worthy partner to the formidable Domingo.
Patrick Fournillier, Domingo's conductor of choice here — the maestro has previously paced Cyrano and Iphigénie in Valencia — and a noted Massenet specialist, led the wonderful Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana in a vibrant, nuanced reading of the score. Italian tenor Paolo Fanale was not especially remarkable as Nicias, although bass Guanuca Buratto infused the sect's leader, Palémon, with adequate gravitas and force in the low notes. Stage director Nicola Raab was in charge of the production, which she had created for Gothenburg Opera. Raab's staging made more sense to me as the scenes progressed. Thaïs is the story of the progressive distancing of one monk from the others, victim of his passions, but here the character is portrayed as radically separated from his brothers from the very start. The monks were dressed in party tuxedos, but Athanaël entered dressed in rags suitable for a medieval monastic. Under Raab's hand, the scenes in Alexandria — and especially the one in the oasis where Athanaël drags Thaïs — achieved both expressive beauty and internal consistency. Thaïs's amazing birdlike dress, by set and costume designer Johan Engels, is one of the best costumes I have ever seen, providing a wonderful visual metaphor for this bird of rare plumage.
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