Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Night at the Opera

I attended a movie theater showing of the Metropolitan Opera production of Thaïs. This is the story of a fanatical Cenobite monk, Athanaël, who browbeats the famed Alexandrian courtesan, Thaïs, into converting to Christianity. Her pivotal "dark night of the soul" happens off-stage while the pit orchestra is playing the wondrous Meditation piece. Athanaël, his hairshirt no defense against Cupid's arrows, suffers his own dark night in the form of repressed desire for the saucy courtesan (charmingly played by the radiant Renee Fleming).

Athanaël grumpily orders Thaïs to renounce her past life of pleasure by burning down her palace with all its finery and then marches her across the burning desert sands to a convent. A few tender moments occur at an oasis along the way, where Athanaël momentarily softens with pity upon seeing her bloody feet. But he shrugs off these feelings and deposits her in the convent.

However, worldly love has the last laugh on Athanaël. Back in the company of his Cenobite brothers, he is haunted by her beauty. He sighs and mopes and staggers about, lovesick. Finally, in a dream it is revealed to him that Thaïs is dying. He rushes to the convent. But, alas, there is no time to save her, as he has frittered away Act 3 and the opera is almost over. Thaïs sings a few ecstatic visions of Heaven and expires. Athanaël is left bereft.

I enjoyed the voices (although the baritone Thomas Hampson who played Athanaël had little to work with except gruff harangues), the orchestra (especially the concertmaster David Chan playing the Meditation violin solo), the costumes, and the stage settings. However, much of the drama was lost on me. Not sharing the Roman Catholic appreciation for convents, I felt that poor Thaïs was rescued from one kind of bondage only to be subjected to another. And her death at the end of the opera from excessive penance troubled me in a way that the composer Massenet, who wished to explore the contrast between sacred and worldly love, surely did not intend.

As usual, I was one of the youngest members of the audience, despite my nearly three score years. All present were AARP eligible except for two young couples. Gazing down the dimly lit rows of stadium seats at the white hair and the bald heads, I was put in mind of cotton balls and marbles scattered upon folds of black velvet.