Music with Ease > 19th Century French Opera > Thaïs - Massenet
An Opera by Jules Massenet
"Thaïs," a lyric comedy in three acts and seven scenes, libretto by M. Louis Gallet, taken from the novel by M. Anatole France which bears the same title; music by Massenet; produced at the Opéra on March 16, 1894. It had been, I think, more than sixty years since the Opera had applied the designation of "lyric comedy" to a work produced on its stage, which is a little too exclusively solemn. As a matter of fact there is no question in Thaïs of one of those powerful and passionate dramas, rich in incidents and majestic dramatic strokes, or one of those subjects profoundly pathetic like those of "Les Huguenots," "La Juive," or "Le Prophète." One could extract from the intimate and mystic novel of "Thaïs" only a unity and simplicity of action without circumlocutions or complications, developing between two important persons and leaving all the others in a sort of discreet shadow, the latter serving only to emphasize the scenic movement and to give to the work the necessary life, color, and variety.
The librettist had the idea of writing his libretto in prose, rhymed, if not entirely in blank verse, in a measured prose to which, in a too long article reviewing it, he gave the name of "poésie mélique." This explanation left the public indifferent, the essential for them being that the libretto be good and interesting and that it prove useful to the musician. The action of "Thaïs" takes place at the end of the fourth century. The first act shows us in a corner of the Theban plain on the banks of the Nile a refuge of cenobites. The good fathers are finishing a modest repast at their common table. One place near them remains empty, that of their comrade Athanaël (Paphnuce in the novel) who has gone to Alexandria. Soon he comes back, still greatly scandalized at the sensation caused in the great city by the presence of a shameless courtesan, the famous actress and dancer, Thaïs, who seems to have turned the skeptical and light heads of its inhabitants. Now in his younger days Athanaël had known this Thaïs, and in Alexandria too, which he left to consecrate himself to the Lord and to take the robe of a religious.
Athanaël is haunted by the memory of Thaïs. He dreams that it would be a pious and meritorious act to snatch her from her unworthy profession and from a life of debauchery which dishonours her and of which she does not even seem to be conscious. He goes to bed and sleeps under the impress of this thought, which does not cease to confront him, so much so that he sees her in a dream on the stage of the theatre of Alexandria, representing the Loves of Venus. He can refrain no longer and on awaking he goes to find her again, firmly resolved to do everything to bring about her conversion.
Arrived at Alexandria, Athanaël meets an old friend, the beau Micias, to whom he makes himself known and who is the lover of Thaïs for a day longer because he has purchased her love for a week which is about to end. Athanaël confides his scheme to Nicias who receives him like a brother and makes him put on clothes which will permit him to attend a fête and banquet which he is to give that very night in honour of Thaïs. Soon he finds himself in the presence of the courtesan who laughs at him at his first words and who engages him to come to see her at her house if he expects to convert her. He does not fail to accept this invitation and once in Thaïss house tells her to be ashamed of her disorderly life and with eloquent words reveals to her the heavenly joys and the felicities of religion. Thaïs is very much impressed; she is on the point of yielding to his advice when afar off in a song are heard the voices of her companions in pleasure. Then she repels the monk, who, without being discouraged, goes away, saying to her: "At thy threshold until daylight I will await thy coming."
In fact here we find him at night seated on the front steps of Thaïss house. Time has done its work and a few hours have sufficed for the young woman to be touched by grace. She goes out of her house, having exchanged her rich garments for a rough woollen dress, finds the monk, and begs him to lead her to a convent. The conversion is accomplished.
But Athanaël has deceived himself. It was not love of God but it was jealousy that dictated his course without his being aware of it. When he has returned to the Thebaid after having conducted Thaïs to a convent and thinks he has found peace again, he perceives with horror that he loves her madly. His thoughts without ceasing turn to her and it a new dream, a cruel dream, he seems to see Thaïs, sanctified and purified by remorse and prayer, on the point of dying in the convent where she took refuge. On awaking, under the impression of this sinister vision, he hurries to the convent where Thaïs is fact is near to breathing her last breath. But he does not wish that she die; and while she, in ecstasy, is only thinking of heaven and of her purification, he wants to snatch her from death and only talks to her of his love. The scene is strange and of real power. Thaïs dies at last and Athanaël falls stricken down beside her.
This subject, half mystic, half psychological, was it really a favourable one for theatrical action? Was it even treated in such a way as to mitigate the defects it might present in this connection? We may doubt it. Nevertheless M. Massenet has written on this libretto of "Thaïs" a score which, if it does not present the firm unity of those of "Manon" and of "Werther," certainly does not lack either inspiration or colour or originality and in which moreover are found in all their force and all their expansion the astonishing technical qualities of a master to whom nothing in his art is foreign.
All the music of the first act, which shows us the retreat of the cenobites, is of a sober and severe colour, with which will be contrasted the movement and the gracefulness of the scene at the house of Nicias. There should be noted the peaceful chorus of monks, the entrance at Athanaël, the fine phrase which follows his dream: "Toi qui mis la pitié dans nos âmes," and the very curious effect of the scene where he goes away again from his companions to return to Alexandria.
In the second act the kind of invocation placed in the mouth of the same Athanaël: "Voila donc la terrible cite," written on a powerful rhythm, is followed by a charming quartette, a passage with an emphasis full of grace and the end of which especially is delightful. I would indicate again in this act the rapid and kindly dialogue of Nicias and of Thaïs: "Nous nous sommes aimés une longue semaine," which seems to conceal under its apparent indifference a sort of sting of melancholy. I pass over the air of Thaïs: "Dis-moi que je suis belle," an air of bravado solely destined to display the finish of a singer, to which I much prefer the whole scene that follows, which is only a long duet in which is only a long duet in which Athanaël tries to convert Thaïs. The severe and stern accents of the monk put in opposition to the raillery and the voluptuous outbreaks (buoyancy) of the courtesan produces a striking contrast which the composer has known how to place in relief with a rare felicity and a real power.
The symphonic intermezzo which, under the name of "meditation," separates this act from the following, is nothing but an adorable violin solo, supported by the harps and the development of which, on the taking up again of the first motif by the violin, brings about the entrance of an invisible chorus, the effect of which is purely exquisite. The curtain then rises on the scene in which Thaïs, who has put on a rough woollen dress, goes to seek the monk to flee with him. Here there is a duet in complete contrast with the preceding. Athanaël wants Thaïs to destroy and burn whatever may preserve the memory of her past. She obeys, demanding favour only for a little statue of Eros: "Lamour est un vertu rare." It is a sort of invocation to the purity of love, written, if one may say so, in a sentiment of chaste melancholy and entirely impressed with gracefulness and poetry.
But what should be praised above all is the final scene, that of the death of Thaïs. This scene, truly pathetic and powerful, has been treated by the composer with a talent of the first order and an incontestable superiority. There again he knew wonderfully well how to seize the contrast between the pious thoughts of Thaïs, who at the moment of quitting life begins to perceive eternal happiness, and the powerless rage of Athanaël, who, devoured by an impious love, reveals to her, without her understanding or comprehending it, all the ardour of a passion that death alone can extinguish in him. The touching phrases of Thaïs, the despairing accents of Athanaël, interrupted by the desolate chants of the nuns, companions of the dying woman, provoke in the hearer a poignant and sincere emotion. That is one of the finest pages we owe to the pen of M. Massenet. We must point out especially the return of the beautiful violin phrase which constitutes the foundation of the intermezzo of the second act.
The work has been very well played by Mlle. Sybil Sanderson (Thaïs), M. Delmas (Athanaël), M. Alvarez (Nicias), Mmes. Héglon and Marcy, and M. Delpouget.