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REVIEW: Excess and Glitter in Thaïs (Minnesota Opera)

Gerard Schneider as Nicias, Kelly Kaduce as Thaïs, and Lucas Meachem as Athanaël with the cast of Thaïs. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Sometimes, going to the theatre means checking your attitudes at the door. There’s a certain market for pieces that have been edited to be politically correct and/or align with contemporary mores, but in my experience these are usually boring due to their resolving or deleting part of the fundamental conflict. Such is the case with Minnesota Opera’s recent production of Thaïs, Jules Massenet’s lushly orchestrated opera about a monk who falls in love with a courtesan and ultimately helps kill her through over-asceticism. Like seemingly half of 19th-century operas, it just doesn’t end well for the soprano lead.

Set that aside and you’ll see what I found in the Ordway: a visually spectacular and aurally tremulous production. This is one of those operas that seems to demand a truly grand production, and that’s basically what it got.

Members of Zenon Dance Company performing in Minnesota Opera’s production of Thaïs. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Soprano Kelly Kaduce, who seems to be as regular a visiting artist as one finds at Minnesota Opera, has shined in several recent seasons in a variety of roles. (She died in Tosca, too. It’s a genre thing, like Sean Bean always dying in films.) As the courtesan/mistress/escort Thaïs, she is entrancing and enticing, and does some splendid acting to the wonderful orchestral backdrop of Massenet’s score. If the opera ended one act early, it would have still been a very satisfying tale, and Thaïs would have still been alive – one of those hidden nuns with beautiful voices that were all the rage in the Renaissance.

Kelly Kaduce as Thaïs. Many of the scenes in Director Andrea Cigni’s production evoke Pre-Raphaelite tableaus. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The problem for Thaïs the character, as it were, is the monk Athanaël. Athanaël is played by baritone Lucas Meachem, who has a silken voice but never seemed to physically express his character’s torments. If not for the supertitles, I would not have guessed at some of those torments; the result was a bit too much “tell” versus “show” for my tastes.

Vocally, the solo highlights of the evening were “Qui te fiat si sévère”, when Kaduce/Thaïs gently brushes off Athanaël’s initial call to the nunnery; her Act II aria “Dis-moi que je suis belle” (“Tell me that I am pretty”, sung delightfully to a mirror); and “Tu sais, Ô Palémon”, when Meacham/Athanaël confesses that he has the hots for the newest nun in the nunnery (Thaïs). The finale between Meacham and Kaduce was exquisite.

Gerard Schneider as the decadent party planner Nicias. Photo by Cory Weaver.

I must confess that the monastery scene in Act I did not move me; as this was forewarned to me as not the opera’s finest moment, that seems more a matter of modern tastes than Christopher Franklin’s tempos, which seemed perfectly suited in all other sections. I would like to go to many parties hosted by Nicias (played wonderfully by the tenor Gerard Schneider), decorated by Lorenzo Cutùli and lit by Marcus Dilliard. They out-Gastby’d the Gatsby in that scene.

Lucas Meachem as the doomed-but-not-as-doomed-as-Thaïs monk Athanaël. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The next piece in Minnesota Opera’s season is Fellow Travelers, a tale of forbidden love in the McCarthy era. This adaptation of the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon plays June 16-26 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.

Amy Donahue