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Classic FM, December 2010

Director Stefano Poda’s 2008 staging from Turin is beautifully stylized

Patrick O'Connor
Gramophone, January 2010

This 2008 staging from Turin, directed, choreographed and designed by Stefano Poda, places the whole story in a sort of dream-world. The chorus and dancers all move in slow motion, everyone is dressed in white or black, and the sets, impressive in their way, use elements from Greek sculpture to suggest the ancient world. In the first scene, the Cenobite community seems to be involved in more than just penitence: one of their number is tied to a cross and half of the younger monks are all but naked.

Below the stage, which is raised from time to time, one glimpses figures dressed in red: are they in hell, or is it part of Athanaël’s furious imagination? When Barbara Frittoli as Thaïs first touches the hellfire priest during the sybarite Nicias’s banquet, Lado Ataneli recoils in horror—but obviously at his own weakness. In this scene, the guests are masked, and Thaïs makes her entrance dressed in a Klimt-like gown, rather demure-looking for a notorious man-eater. This, though, is the point of Anatole France’s novel and of Louis Gallet’s libretto for Massenet. Thaïs is the victim, not Nicias, who pursues her with money but no feeling.

Any version of this opera, no matter how impressive the settings, stands or falls on the two main protagonists and their series of duets. Frittoli is taxed by the high-lying phrases of the mirror aria, “Dis-moi que je suis belle”, in Act 2, but rises to the challenge of “L’amour est une vertu rare”; at the end, she is not seen to be dead but is raised on high on a pedestal, out of reach of  the now distraught Athanaël. Ataneli gives a strong performance but the highly stylised nature of the staging doesn’t allow for much subtlety of expression. The Act 2 ballet turns into a nightmarish bacchanal. Gianandrea Noseda conducts with enough sensitivity for Massenet’s style to rescue the opera at least part of the time from the excesses of Poda’s conception.

La Scena Musicale, October 2009

It is interesting to see this Teatro Regio Torino Thaïs so soon after the one from the Met starring Renée Fleming. Both are big-budget extravaganzas, with name singers and conductors. But here the similarities end. The John Cox production at the Met is pretty, tasteful but tame—one would never have guessed it is about debaucheries in ancient Alexandria. On the other hand, sex is front and center in the Stefano Poda production for TORINO. There’s probably more exposed flesh here—particularly of the male variety—than in any other opera production in recent memory. (However it must be said that none of the principals take it off). Visually, it is often breathtaking in its use of colours and textures, enhanced by Poda’s brilliant lighting effects. While Fleming at the Met is swathed in a parade of chaste-looking Christian Lacroix gowns, Frittoli’s costumes, designed by the multi-tasking Poda, are infinitely sexier and more interesting. Musically the Torino forces are perhaps not on the same level as the Met’s, but the Italians play strongly for Gianandrea Noseda. The solo in Méditation—by an uncredited violinist—is every bit as exquisite. As Athanaël, Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli convincingly breathes fire and brimstone, helped by his powerful, stentorian delivery and an animal magnetism that the Met’s Thomas Hampson lacks. Alas, the major liability turns out to be the Thaïs of Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli. Her voice is now afflicted by an unsteadiness bordering on a wobble, and her singing is often effortful and her pitch approximate. A dramatically engaged singer, she seems unusually cautious here, perhaps due to the vocal challenges. She would occasionally produce a nice effect, but overall it is disappointing. Despite its flaws, this disc is well worth purchasing for the memorable Stefano Poda production alone.

John Terauds
Toronto Star, September 2009

MASSENET, J.: Thais (Teatro Regio Torino, 2008) (NTSC) 101385

MASSENET, J.: Thais (Teatro Regio Torino, 2008) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101386

Baritone Lado Atanelli is excellent as the ardent, conflicted monk, and conductor Gianandrea Noseda, a frequent guest of the Toronto Symphony, makes sublime work of Massenet’s rich score.

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