Operas are subject to changes in fashion, suffering long periods of neglect. One such opera is Thaïs by Jules Massenet. Its first performance was at the Paris Opera in 1894 at the peak of the composer’s popularity, but 500 performances later, by 1931, most of Massenet’s operas (except Manon) were fading from the repertory. Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge did much to revive international interest in Massenet’s works, but not Thaïs. We did mount a successful and stylish production of his Werther in 1989, but Thaïs has had to wait until this year when, rather surprisingly, it is receiving two unconnected performances, both in concert format, one recently by Opera Australia and one forthcoming on 26 August by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Sir Andrew Davis, Chief Conductor of MSO, is particularly keen on Thaïs and on his choice for the title role, Canadian soprano Erin Wall. They collaborated on the work last year in the Edinburgh Festival; he has wanted it to be heard by his Melbourne audiences. The other principal role is being taken by American baritone, Quinn Kelsey who plays a rather serious monk around Alexandria in the 4th century who attempts to convert the courtesan, Thaïs. She converts him. Sir Andrew describes the opera’s power as coming from it’s ‘strange mixture of religious fervour and eroticism.’ In Sydney, the title role was sung by Nicole Car with (her new husband) Etienne Dupuis as the monk. Sensuous and exotic.