Premiere 27 february 2010.
Opera. At the centre of attention stands the celebrated courtesan Thaïs, who can feel that her stardom is beginning to fade. The monk Athanaël is obsessed with trying to convert her to the Christian faith.
Opera in three acts by Jules Massenet (1842-1912).
”Like a tale from a Thousand and One Nights.” Expr/GT
“Soprano Malin Byström is magnificent.” GP
”A performance that wipes the floor with any competition, even on the international arena.” DN
“A dazzlingly beautiful Thaïs – both visually and musically.” DN
”The performance is like a dream.” GP
”A must-see performance!” SR, Radio Sjuhärad
“Both visually sharp and vibrant.” GP
Watch a clip from the performance.
For a long time Thaïs was one of the most popular operas, but from the middle of the 20th century it slowly sank into oblivion. During the past few years this work has had a revival and many major opera houses have once again included it in their repertoire. In fact, it is hard to imagine an opera that is more in line with the times with its hunger for luxury, striving for beauty and longing for eternal youth on the one hand and, its religious asceticism and fanaticism on the other hand.
At the centre of attention stands the celebrated courtesan Thaïs in Alexandria who can feel that her stardom is beginning to fade. The monk Athanaël becomes obsessed with trying to convert her to the Christian faith. He succeeds in this, and Thaïs leaves her sinful life to take refuge in a nunnery. In the meantime, however, Athanaël realises that it is in fact Thaïs’ body he desires. Each of them embark on an inner journey of their own, but never meet in any depth in this opera that the French composer Jule Massenet has spiced with his most exquisite music.
Watch pictures from the performance.
Watch a movie from the costume fitting.
The direction team with Nicola Raab, a debutante on the Swedish stage, at the helm, have chosen to focus on the time at which the work was written, with its diva cult à la Sarah Bernhardt and its oriental fad as important components. Yet another reason why this opera has so seldom been performed has been the difficulty of finding an interpreter of the title role, which demands something extraordinary. The fact that we have Malin Byström may be reason enough to put on a production of Thaïs. Thomas Lander as the fanatical monk has a far-reaching part and the versatile conductor Jan Latham-Koenig brings forth the sensual tones from the orchestra.
Watch a interview with the scenographer and costume designer Johan Engels.
Malin Byström, soprano.
Malin Byström received her training at Stockholm University College of Opera. In 2000 she sang Fiorella in Il Turco in Italia at the opera house in Lübeck, and for the next two seasons she was affiliated with the opera in Nuremberg where her roles included Musetta in La Bohème, Gretel in Hansel und Gretel, Gilda in Rigoletto, Annina in Eine Nacht in Venedig, Hermione in Boesman’s Wintermärchen and Pamina in The Magic Flute.
As of 2002 Malin Byström is a freelancer and has performed at the festival in Bregenz (Musetta), at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (Amalia in I Masnadieri), in Mannheim (Musetta), in Montpellier (the leading role in Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna), in Los Angeles (cover for Donna Anna in Don Giovanni with Kent Nagano) and at Opera North in Leeds (the leading role in Massenet’s Manon and Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte).
In the spring of 2006 she sang Così fan tutte together with William Christie in Lyon and Don Giovanni in Amsterdam. The 2006/2007 season included Don Giovanni both at concerts in Örebro, Sweden, with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Lawrence Renes, and performances with René Jacobs in Baden-Baden, Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow in Montpellier and Kullervo with the French National Orchestra in Paris.
Some of her most recent commissions have been The Countess in Figaro’s Wedding at the Beaunes Barock Music Festival, La Scala debut with the soprano part of Beethoven’s 9th with Kurt Masur, and Agathe in Der Freischütz in Bregenz. Works that Malin Byström has sung as a concert singer include Strauss´ Vier letzte Lieder, Mozart’s Requiem, Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, Carmina Burana, Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Messias.
At the Göteborg Opera she has sung Margareta in Faust 2007 and participated in the Summer Concert of 2009.
Thomas Lander, baritone.
Thomas Lander received his training at the Royal University College of Music in Stockholm and the Stockholm University College of Opera. Directly after his studies he was engaged at a number of foreign stages, including the Staatsoper in Hamburg, the Volksoper in Vienna, Niedersächsische Staatsoper in Hanover, the festival in Aix-en-Provence and the opera houses of Lyon, Karlsruhe, Munich and Bremen.
Today he is a freelancing opera and concert singer with Sweden as his home base. In Sweden he has performed on stages such as Folkoperan, Malmö Opera, the Göteborg Opera, Drottningholms Slottsteater, NorrlandsOperan, the Läckö Castle Opera and Opera på Skäret.
His repertoire includes the Count in Figaro’s Wedding, Papageno and the Speaker in The Magic Flute, the title role in Don Giovanni, Guglielm o and Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte, Malatesta in Don Pasquale, Belcore in L’Elisir d’Amore, Silvio in Pajazzo, Czar Peter in Zar und Zimmermann, Scarpia in Tosca, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliette and the title role in The Flying Dutchman. His most recent roles include Havgrad in Poet and Prophetess at NorrlansOperan and Cape Town Opera in South Africa as well as Ned Keene in Peter Grimes, also at NorrlandsOperan.
At the Göteborg Opera he has performed Ford in Falstaff and Ping in Turandot.
Thomas Lander also has a comprehensive romance and concert repertoire and has done a number of radio, TV and CD recordings.
French Sensualism and the Diva Cult.
Several currents of ideas just before the turn of the century in Paris merge together in Massenet's Thaïs's from 1894. At this time the diva cult had reached its peak and star actresses like Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse celebrated triumphs on tour all over the world. At times they were subjected to an idol worship that was almost ruthless. There were stars similar to these within the world of opera, and sopranos such as Adelina Patti and Nellie Melba performed for astronomical salaries. It is said that Adelina Patti toured with her own railway carriage, completely fitted-out with furniture and equipment for her personal comfort. In a sense one could say that the courtesan Thaïs from Alexandria in the 4th century is an image of just such a diva and the role was written for just such a very special singer – Sybil Sanderson. Massenet virtually picked her off the street when he discovered that she had an astonishing vocal range as well as personal beauty and charm beyond compare. As Thaïs, she also performed far more scantily and provocatively clad than was the custom on an opera stage. After a few years at the absolute top she ran herself down and ended up in destitution and drug abuse.
The French woman’s roles were always very sensual and coquette, always balancing delicately on the verge of indecency. Soon, a few authors would take this a step further and present these diva roles as veritable vamps and projections of male sexual anxiety. It began already with Oscar Wilde’s Salome, written for Sarah Bernhardt and later set to music by Richard Strauss. When Salome, uninhibited in her desire for John the Baptist’s decapitated head, speaks of her lust and hunger to kiss the dead man’s lips, we enter a new phase that was to continue with several of Strindberg’s more or less monstrous female roles.
Something else that was typical for the French romantic opera was the mixture of religious and erotic tonal languages. several operas had theme that were readily amenable to this treatment; it began already with Gounod’s Faust where in the church scene Marguerite prays to God for forgiveness for her escapades to the accompaniment of sensual tones from the orchestra. In Massenet’s Manon the rather loose heroine is suddenly captured by the religious atmosphere in a monastery and prays that God will show her the way to Des Grieux' heart. And in Thaïs, Massenet then took it one step further, when he had the lionized sex idol and courtesan converted and end her days as a nun. In Thaïs he succeeds in finding the perfect balance in tone between ingratiating sensualism on the one hand and the ascetic dogmatism of the leading male character Athanaël on the other. The work became a perfect example of how to mix religion and eroticism, but was also subjected to a great deal of criticism for the same reason.
After continuing intermittently thoughout the 19th century, the passion for the oriental, the exotic and the foreign finally reached its peak. This fascination for a foreign country and exotic culture, for the mystical and the remote could also be quite titillating. In Thaïs, Massenet exploits the fact that the story takes place in Alexandria, and continually colours the sound with oriental tones – albeit only on the surface. When Thaïs, in the midst of all the fumes of incense, invokes Venus, the gracefully mystical tones capture the situation perfectly. And when Athanaël and Thaïs abandon her house in the lonesome night Massenet imitates the oriental instruments with drums and chimes. Few works are so distinctly a product of their time as Massenet’s Thaïs.
From the Göteborg Opera’s general programme for 2009/2010.