The tortured and improbable tale which unfurls in this opera is a further rehash of that so beloved of Christian hagiographers, the wayward harlot who in one way or another sees the light, of whom the two best-known exemplars are St Mary Magdalen and S. Maria Egiziaca, a real-life Alexandrian prostitute turned anchorite. Certainly the mixture of religion and eroticism holds a very potent fascination, and it inspired Massenet, somewhat smitten with the beauty and voice of Sibyl Sanderson, a Californian soprano and the first Thas (as well as the first Esclarmonde in 1889), to considerable heights. Here we have the extra twist of the Coenobite instrumental in her conversion, Athanal, gradually coming to realize that his passion for her is anything but spiritual, but, before he can do anything about this, she dies in his arms, pure.
The sets and production are historic ones by Pier Luigi Samaritani, originally created for Rome in 1978 and very splendid indeed, and here sensitively reused and slightly adapted for changing taste by Renzo Giacchieri. The lengthy ballet scenes, in which the music is often of great banality, are given in full, and are saved by the inventive choreography of Wayne Eagling, while the performance of Carla Fracci in the critical Mditation, which marks Thass move from debauchery to purity, is of an exemplary refinement. This symphonic intermezzo, with its exquisitely sweet violin solo, backed by harps, is sublime and the most famous part of the whole score.
The French conductor, Pascal Roph, is of course very much in his element, and the Teatro dellOpera Orchestra rises to the occasion. The choir copes very well with the foreign language.
Amarilli Nizza, Thas, is tall, young, slim and beautiful, with both the looks and the vocal requirements for the part, and, thanks to her acting skills, convinces both in the debauched manifestation of the character and the reformed. Poor Athanal, tortured by his all too human weakness, is sung by the French baritone, Patrice Berger, with strength and pathos, while Claudio Di Segni, as Nicias, a young Alexandrian Sybarite philosopher, who enjoys Thass favours up to the moment of her conversion, brings great allure to his portrayal of the attractively carefree voluptuary out for a good time. The lesser roles are very adequately covered.
The Mditation is sublime and unforgettable, but overall the invention of the score is perhaps not of the highest order, in spite of Massenets great professionality and his resorting to exotic sound and instruments. This opera is indeed very easy on the ear, but not short.
Teatro dellOpera di Roma, Piazza Beniamino Gigli 1, Rome.
Tel. 06481601 www.opera.roma.it. Further performances 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 June 2005. In the original French with surtitles