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The Sunday Opera: Jules Massenet's "Thais" with Beverly Sills, Nicolai Gedda, and Sherrill Milnes

We’re turning to the music of Jules Massenet for this week’s Sunday Opera (6/4 3:00 p.m.) and the 19th of his 34 operas, “Thais.” Originally written in 1894, we’ll be hearing the revised version from four years later featuring a stellar cast recorded in 1976.

Although Massenet’s earlier operas “Manon” (1884) and “Werther” (1892) seem to be performed more often and “Cendrillon” (1899) more loved because of its fairytale origins, “Thais” is filled with some beautifully lush and thrilling music. Oh, and there’s the incredibly popular “meditation” as well.

Thais (Beverly Sills) is a popular and beautiful courtesan. She is currently the partner of the nobleman, Nicias (Nicolai Gedda), who lives only for pleasure. It is their last night together, and there is a large party as a result. Into the party comes Athanael, a Cenobite monk who knew Nicias in his past. Athanael is there against the wishes of his leader, Palemon (Richard Van Allan), because Athanael has had a vision of Thais whom he saw many years before in his youth in Alexandria.

Thais and Athanael meet, and Athanael is rebuffed by her which makes him more determined to “save” her, and Thais sees him off by doing a strip tease.

Thais finally gives into Athanael, and he walks her across the desert to a convent where he places Thais is the hands of the abbess, Albine (Patricia Kern) before returning to his order of Cenobites. Once there, he begins to have visions about Thais once again, but this time, he sees her on her deathbed. He has begun to question his vocation because he finds he loves her.

Returning to the convent, he arrives too late, and while he tries to tell Thais that everything he told her was false and the only love is that between two people, Thais is describing the glories of heaven that she is seeing, and unaware that Athanael is there, she dies.

Other members of the cast include Anne-Marie Connors, Ann Murray, Norma Burrowes, and Brian Ethridge. Lorin Maazel conducts The John Alldis Choir and New Philharmonia Orchestra.

We’ll continue with more music of Massenet to fill the afternoon including two of his symphonic scenes: Nos. 6 (Scenes de feerie) and 7 (Scenes Alsaciennes) as well as two suites from his ballet “Le Cid” and his opera “Cendrillon.”

Michael is program host and host of the WWFM Sunday Opera, Sundays at 3 pm, and co-host of The Dress Circle, Sundays at 7 pm.
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