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“Cut the ballet. It stinks anyway!”

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
05/03/2014 -  & May 4*, 6, 10 (Miami), 15, 17 (Fort Lauderdale), 2014
Jules Massenet: Thaïs
Angela Mortellaro (Thaïs), Kristopher Irmiter (Athanaël), Martin Nusspaumer (Nicias), Adam Lau (Palémon), Riley Svatos (Crobyle), Caitlin McKechney (Myrtale), Raehann Bryce-Davis (Albine), Carlton Ford (Slave)
Florida Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Michael Sakir (chorus master), Ramón Tebar (conductor)
Renaud Doucet (director), André Barbe (scenery and costume design), Guy Simand (lighting design)

E. Gutierrez & K. Irmiter (© J. Namon/ra haus fotografie)

It is funny how certain operas hang on the edge of the repertory and all of a sudden become popular again for a few years; then revert once more into hiding. It seems a bit late for Florida Grand Opera to rediscover Thaïs since a major revival and recording with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson was all the rage about fifteen years ago. Stars of this caliber (in the 1970s it was Beverly Sills) are necessary to kick off a reexamination of this tale often dismissed as “exotic” and overly “perfumed.” Lovers of old movies will probably see a relation in the Salammbô excerpt (composed by Bernard Hermann) from the movie Citizen Kane where a long forgotten work is resurrected for the debut of the unfortunately untalented Susan Alexander Kane.

How many know anything from Thaïs except for the “Méditation?” The ballet music is among the most banal ever written (let’s be grateful it was omitted); but why three acts to tell such a simple tale? It is no wonder that there have been directors and performers who sometimes spice it up with nudity and sexually suggestive staging. But in our less shocking age, that no longer works.

There are some works that demand a soprano who can hold the stage. Thaïs is this sort of vehicle and with Eglise Gutierrez, who sang on opening night, Florida Grand Opera has an undeniable hit. Being very well acquainted with the aforementioned recording, there is no question that the leads, all of them, here are far superior musically and dramatically. Gutierrez floats pianissimos all over the place and never shouts. She is thoroughly comfortable with French subtlety and her transformation from courtesan (what a pretentious word!) to devoted Christian is completely believable, never bordering on goofy. Though Athanaël is the opera’s biggest role, he doesn’t get sumptuous music like his leading lady. Yet, Kristopher Irmiter uses his solid baritone and fine acting to make us sympathize with this young man’s dilemma; one that most males of the modern age have much less difficulty resolving. There are times when we see Athanaël struggle to control the physical arousal caused by Thaïs’ presence; yet it is never vulgar and more importantly not silly. Aside from the two main characters, once again we experience the dynamic tenor of Martin Nusspaumer in the “Wolf of Wall Street” role of Nicias. This man appears more caring than one would expect of a john for his whore. Nusspaumer makes us believe it, but the worldly wise Thaïs reminds us that he is in love with love. Plenty of ambiguity keeps their interactions compelling. Angela Mortellaro at the matinee was not on Gutierrez’s level either musically or dramatically. Her fine instrument needs to be scaled back to give the elegant less is more dimension that a French role like Thaïs requires.

The comprimario roles by Florida Grand Opera Young Artists are handled with the confidence of seasoned pros. Especially rewarding are the Crobyle and Myrtale of Riley Svatos and Caitlin McKechney; when they join in with Nicias and Athanaël we get significant vocal fireworks. Adam Lau uses his powerful bass as Palémon, leader of monks, to create a truly compassionate father figure for the order. And Raehann Bryce-Davis’s cool dark mezzo gives a soothing aura for Thaïs after her long and painful trek.

Director Renaud Doucet thoroughly thought out these characters’ motivations giving sensitivity and depth to a storyline which is pretty slight. Ramón Tebar resisted the temptation of overdramatizing which could give the beautiful orchestration the feeling of a silent movie score (not to diminish their worth). The “Meditation” is taken at a remarkably slow pace as it should be in a performance of the opera where it serves a purpose much more significant than showing off a violinist’s virtuosity. Michael Sakir’s chorus was unusually strong and lent tender moments in the monastery and convent scenes as well as the famous intermezzo. André Barbe’s design is an homage to 1950s Technicolor and post The Lion King Broadway. Every color of the rainbow and its variation is there. Tasteful? Thankfully, no; it is kitsch at its proudest. Without this approach, the evening could have been a complete bore.

This is an opera of an era; it is interesting to examine that period whatever it's worth. But outside of making some very pretty music, this production makes no claim in showing that Thaïs still has relevance. A sadly missed opportunity because when Thaïs premiered, Athanaël’s behavior might have seemed pious, almost noble. Now, however, with psychological awareness from stories like Somerset Maugham’s Rain and Of Human Bondage not to mention enormous American religious hypocrisy, we know better.

In spite of some longueurs, there is fun here if you don’t expect to be bowled over with drama. And with performers like the ones Florida Grand Opera has assembled, there are moments that are downright touching, for some perhaps even moving. An opportunity for Thais will not come along often, so it is a shame that instead of finding topical significance, the production’s goal is to maintain the strong scent of perfume. On the other hand, if you don’t enjoy yourself, you are probably a bigger prig than Athanaël.

Jeff Haller



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