Thaïs: Ailyn Pérez & Gerald Finley Must Be Heard In Gorgeous Revival of Massenet Masterpiece

Emmanuel Villaume
Opera Wire

In the pit, Emmanuel Villaume put in just as excellent a performance and one must no doubt credit him for the genius of his lead artists as well. From the opening chords to the final ones, the polish of one of Massenet’s finest scores was felt. The maestro balanced every sound throughout the ensemble, his delicate approach in the opening scene with the monks establishing the purity of their religious fervor. This allowed for him to play with greater range in the second scene where the growing sound of the orchestra seemed at conflict with Finley’s voice (without ever overpowering or drowning him). In this context, one could sense the overwhelming feeling of the character being a fish out of water. Also interesting in his approach was the sense of consistent meter. Most often associate French music with having a looseness and almost improvisatory style with its lyrical freedom. And many conductors get away with it, despite often sacrificing a sense of dramatic pacing for emotional effect. Villaume balanced the two perfectly, keeping the drama moving forward always, but leaving space for lyrical expansiveness, best seen in the gentle duet between Thaïs and Nicias and even more subtly in the first duet between the title character and Athanaël in the first scene of Act three.

Moreover, by starting the entire performance with a more delicate interpretation, the maestro gave himself and his singers room to slowly build up the music and the emotional instability that Athanaël experiences. The transition between the second and third scene of Act three was riveting for its punctuated accents and sudden sense of aggression. It always sustained its sense of poise and musical elegance, but one could feel the music jolting in a manner that hadn’t been present in earlier scenes.

The violin solo, as played by David Chan, followed closely with Villaume’s suave approach to the score, the legato lines refined and the emotional crescendos and outbursts contained, emphasizing the inner turmoil of the character, rather than extroverting it. The repetitions of the melody that occur more and more frequently in the latter sections of the opera took on an even sweeter tone each time, expressing the growing sanctification of the heroine.
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