My least favourite of the three productions on DVD but has a lot of good things
Thais is perhaps not Massenet's best plot-wise, I have always found Manon and Werther more plausible and less straightforward. However, the music is very beautiful, with colourful orchestral writing and searing string passages, especially the Meditation, Thais' Act 2 aria and the final scene. This production directed by Stefano Poda is not a bad one, in fact despite its flaws it's quite good. I do though think the 2004 Teatro La Fenice and especially 2008 Met productions are superior.
I don't think the production is perfect. The video directing does get tiring, with a lot of jumping around and movement and not enough of what is going on on stage. The choreography no matter how graceful and technically accomplished was uninteresting, with none of the gestures and moves particularly special. Thais' "breastplates" were distracting and unflattering, almost as bad as the ones Brunnhilde had to endure for the Valencia Ring Cycle.
Disappointing also was Lado Ataneli, who I was impressed with as Iago and Scarpia. However, these were villainous roles, completely different to Athanael. I will say that Ataneli does sing more powerfully than in those two performances though perhaps with too much of a black-hearted tone, but with none of the subtlety and command these two performances did have. His singing has little dynamic shading and with too much of the sing-loud-and-that's-it quality lacks any kind of sensitivity. His acting on the whole lacks passion and authority.
Barbara Frittoli however is wonderful. Her wide vibrato may be a source of irritation to some, but the many vocal colours and dynamic range that she shows more than makes up for it. The Act 2 aria of Thais is one of the highlights of the opera and likewise one of the highlights of the production. Her voice is not as warm as Renee Fleming's but if there is anything I do prefer over the Teatro La Fenice production it is that I do prefer Frittoli's tone to the intelligent but sometimes uneven and acidic one of Eva Mei's. What surprised though was her acting, sometimes she is sparkling like as Alice and moving as Suor Angelica yet mechanical as Micaela and well sung but dull as Donna Elvira(for La Scala). As Thais she is very moving, especially in the affecting final scene, though it's a shame she is never quite matched by Ataneli.
Of the supporting cast, the standouts are Maurizio Lo Piccolo's Palemon and Alessandro Liberatore's Nicias. Lo Piccolo sings with a lot of nuances and has a lovely rounded basso cantante voice. He is a sympathetic and commanding actor as well. Liberatore occasionally has a dry sound to his voice, but more than makes up for it by intelligent use of vocal colour and good acting in a thankless role. Diego Matamoros is good as the Servant, and Albine, Crobyle and Myriale are well-characterised.
From a musical point of view, it is wonderful. The orchestral playing is very musical and stylish, yet the Meditation manages to be incredibly moving. Gianandrea Noseda's reading on the conductor's podium is slow in tempo but very nuanced and has intent and sympathy to his singers' needs. The chorus in their very crowded scenes sing with an excellent sound and are very well blended and animated(dramatically that is and in their reactions to the conflict). The sound is first class.
Visually, the production is not too bad in this respect either. The costumes apart from the breastplates are luxurious, though you can't really tell that Thais is a courtesan. The settings are sparse but that was deliberate to me to symbolise the emptiness of Thais' life. The backdrops regardless manage to come across as very evocative. The choreography apart from the Meditation is great. The Act 2 ballet is thrilling in how atmospherically Oriental it is and its striking similarities somewhat to Dance of the Hours.
In conclusion, has several good things but also a few disappointments. Recommended but not my first choice. 7/10 Bethany Cox
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