Young singers prove most consistent in Maryland Lyric Opera’s uneven “Thaïs”

Sun Feb 02, 2020 at 12:07 pm
Sarah Joy Miller in the title role and Joseph Michael Brent as Nicias in Massenet’s Thaïs at Maryland Lyric Opera. Photo: Sam Trotman, Jr./MDLO

A production of Massenet’s Thaïs presents considerable challenges, making it a rarity. The story, adapted from a novel by Anatole France, strikes most listeners today as absurd, and the vocal writing for both leads is daunting. 

Maryland Lyric Opera mounted the first local staging of the opera in at least two decades, heard on Saturday afternoon. Sadly this was a production not quite ready for prime time.

Athanaël, an ascetic monk living in the Egyptian desert, becomes obsessed with Thaïs, a courtesan in Alexandria. He knew her before she fell into her immoral life, and now he intends to save her soul. He goes to the home of his wealthy friend Nicias, who is currently keeping Thaïs, and converts her. She goes with the monk to a convent, where she retreats to a cell, dying a few years later as a saint. 

Massenet conceived the title role for a truly extraordinary voice, American soprano Sibyl Sanderson. Soprano Sarah Joy Miller made an alluring Thaïs, youthful and adorned in various blond wigs. The voice had almost all of the qualities required by Massenet, carrying over the orchestra with beauty and power. Miller’s voice gave out slightly at the top end, particularly in dramatic moments like the death scene, where Thaïs glimpses heaven, and the releases of high notes were often ragged.

Louis Otey, a baritone with a long and distinguished career, was clearly in some kind of vocal distress as Athanaël. While his lower and middle ranges sounded with rough-edged intensity, the top notes sometimes simply vanished. Otey tried to compensate by singing some passages down an octave, but too often he would try to hit a note, find that he could not, and back off it. One almost anticipated him withdrawing at the end of each scene, but no understudy appeared.

Tenor Joseph Michael Brent bellowed the role of Nicias with vain bluster. His voice was leathery and forceful but lacked polish, in a way that was oddly convincing in the role. 

Two talented alumni of Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program excelled in supporting roles. Baritone Hunter Enoch showed subtle power as Palémon, the leader of the monks, and mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita stole parts of Act III with her velvet-voiced Albine, superior of the convent.

Other promising young singers brought beauty and stage presence to the comprimario roles: soprano Hayan Kim and mezzo-soprano Caroline Hewitt as the seductive pair of Crobyle and Myrtale; soprano Sarah Joyce Cooper slightly halting at the top of the coloratura escapades of La Charmeuse. The men of the MDLO Chorus tripped over some of the fast-moving words in the opening scene as the chorus of monks, but in general the choral contributions were solid.

Conductor Louis Salemno presided over the full and unified sound of the MDLO Orchestra, with potent brass and percussion marking major climaxes, although concertmaster Jose Cueto’s intonation wavered at crucial points in the famous violin solo of the Méditation. The large orchestra fit mostly into the pit, with the celesta and a keyboard synthesizer (providing the organ and piano parts) consigned to a balcony just above the left side of the stage.

Photo: Sam Trotman, Jr./MDLO

Director Claudia Zahn’s staging emphasized color and grandeur, keeping the action in its original late Roman setting. Sam Fleming’s handsome costumes, in a bewildering range of technicolor hues and suggesting a wide range of cultural influences, complimented the somewhat drab sets designed by Harry Feiner. It was a bold decision not to cut the ballet in Act II, presented with seductive choreography by Sarah J. Ewing for eight dancers from her company, S.J. Ewing & Dancers.

Given the success of the ballet scene, even with its lower-quality music, it was a shame for Zahn not to have done something more with the staging during the Méditation or Athanaël’s dream earlier in the opera. In an opera where the struggle between worldly and celestial love takes place in the minds of its two protagonists, these scenes felt drab and unremarkable.

Maryland Lyric Opera presents a new production of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Il Tabarro 7:30 p.m. April 1 at Strathmore.

One Response to “Young singers prove most consistent in Maryland Lyric Opera’s uneven “Thaïs””

  1. Posted Feb 05, 2020 at 3:53 pm by Peter Russell

    I could be mistaken, but the last professional performance in DC may have been the one by Washington Concert Opera in September of 1989, which marked both the area and role debuts of Renée Fleming, with Gaetan Laperrière as Athanael and the young Paul Groves as Nicias. Washington National Opera also presented it in 1976 with Noelle Rogers in the title role and Louis Quilico as Athanael.

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