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A superbly engaging evening

Roy Thomson Hall
11/07/2019 -  & November 9, 2019
Jules Massenet: Thaïs
Erin Wall (Thaïs), Joshua Hopkins (Athanaël), Andrew Staples (Nicias), Nathan Berg (Palémon), Liv Redpath (Crobyle), Andrea Ludwig (Myrtale), Emilia Boteva (Albine), Stacey Tappan (La charmeuse), Kieran Kane (Un serviteur)
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, David Fallis (choirmaster), The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)

J. Hopkins, E. Wall, A. Davis & E. Boteva (© Jag Gundu)

There isn’t much to say about this performance except it all went extremely well.

Two years ago Roy Thomson Hall was turned into a recording studio for a performance of a varied program of Vaughan Williams works, focusing on the rarely-played Piano Concerto performed by Louis Lortie. The resulting CD, on the Chandos label, was positively received. A recording taken from these two performances of Jules Massenet’s Thaïs will also appear on Chandos.

The two elements that added up to such a satisfying evening were (1) a well-chosen and well-rehearsed cast, and (2) the large orchestra released from the confines of an orchestra pit, thus giving full scope to both the work’s grand and more intimate moments. Another plus was the presence of the huge choir (over 90 voices) which, while not used all that much, gave rich heft to the big moments and a warm frisson when they gently hummed along with the famous méditation.

Of course the méditation was a star turn for concertmaster Jonathan Crow and later, in one of its reiterations, for flutist Kelly Zimba.

The work gets off to a slow start, with a scene featuring a group of monks sharing a no-doubt meagre meal in the Egyptian desert. The monks’ leader, Palémon, helps set the scene for us. The monk Athanaël recounts his disgust at the moral decline of Alexandria, singling out a priestess of Venus, one Thaïs. In the second scene Athanaël visits an old friend, Nicias, a wealthy man who has fallen under the spell of Thaïs. At last she herself appears; her belated appearance turns out to be well worth waiting for as we luxuriate in her voluptuous vocal lines that meld sensuously with the orchestra, a stunning demonstration of of Massenet’s mastery. Erin Wall captured every facet of the role throughout the work.

Matching her in technique and vocal quality was Joshua Hopkins as Athanaël. There was a fierce quality to his performance, perfectly in keeping with the character whose ardent abhorrence of Thaïs masks an equally ardent lust.

Andrew Staples’s voice rang out engagingly as the sybaritic Nicias. Smaller roles were also well sung; it was nice to hear Nathan Berg again, and Stacey Tappan made the most of her vignette as la charmeuse. It helped that the singers made use of scores only sparingly.

This was Sir Andrew Davis’s sixth experience with Thaïs and his love of the opera really shone through. The sheer persuasiveness of the performance brought home the sad realization as to just how meagre French opera has come to be in Toronto. The Canadian Opera Company in its 70-year history has presented just one production of Manon (in 1952!), two of Werther (in 1980 and 1992), and one of Don Quichotte (in 2014). Toronto’s Opera in Concert performed 12 Massenet operas (some more than once) during the 20-year leadership (1974-94) of its founder, Stewart Hamilton. It would be terrific if this presentation of Thaïs (enthusiastically received by a sizable audience) were a harbinger of more Gallic delights.

Michael Johnson



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