Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Painted Plywood Desert

December 12, 2008

Alyson Cambridge, Thomas Hampson, and Ginger Costa-Jackson
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2008

You know you’re in trouble during Act I of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Thaïs, when Thomas Hampson awakens from a dream of a seductive dancing Renée Fleming with shouts of horror. It’s difficult to suppress the laughter, but you do, persevering through the next three hours of perhaps one of the most unintentionally funny opera stagings I’ve seen in quite awhile. Later in Act II, Thaïs escapes with similarly umlauted Athanaël following a belly dance sequence that ends in a big wet lesbian kiss. Fleming has the good sense to steer clear of that particular moment. But what’s even crazier is that with all this kitsch and purported desire, John Cox’s production, which was imported from Lyric Opera of Chicago, is more tepid, cold, and unsexy than one would imagine for such a tale. The action is kind-of updated into a garish Lacroix-clad 20th-century version of Egypt, but not so much that you'd notice.

Renée Fleming as Thaïs
Photo: Ken Howard/Met 2008

Ms. Fleming is no doubt at the center of this entire revival. And perhaps the good news is that despite all of the silliness (wait until you see the altar she sits and dies on during the final scene), she delivers a very solid and enjoyable vocal performance. She was a little screechy at the top here, but there are so many other charms and it’s all done so prettily, that the other bits, like a desert made of unusually stiff sand, can be overlooked. Speaking of stiff, did I already mention Thomas Hampson? He’s the other key player, and in some ways has the more difficult part in that Athanaël is the pious and inflexible one right up to the end. But I never really believed him in this. He could have been signing Germont for all I could see, but those dreads do make a girly go wild don't they?

Jesús López-Cobos and his very own set of diacritical marks led the orchestra in a performance that heated up as he went along. By the end, the playing was light and quite beautiful, a lovely compliment to Ms. Fleming’s voice. So is it worth seeing? Of course. How often are you going to see Thaïs anyway and it is well sung. Just don’t expect any miracles. Oh, and if you really can’t get enough of Ms. Fleming, she’ll be at the Metropolitan Opera shop on Friday from 12:30 until 2:00 selling CDs and perfume (why not!).

PSS. Fate has turned my way a little with the Met’s recurring Tristan und Isolde surprise performer rotation. I’m apparently seeing Waltrud Meier covering for an ill Katarina Dalayman tonight. Go figure.


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