Thais is above all an opera, with all that implies of lyricism, sonic power, strong emotions and twists. It is therefore advisable not to do half-heartedness under the pretext of being in the French style and elegance. The challenge is to find the right balance between stylistic restraint and the human fabric, this thread of life that is written on black that must be heard and magnified. And in this sense, the work is appreciated more on stage than in concert. But last night, the concert form put on a sublime finery thanks to its five-star cast. To regain Thais the program of a leading theater had indeed everything to delight, and the only reading of the prestigious distribution (Ermonela Jaho, Ludovic Tezier, Pene Pati) carried the enthusiasm of the lyricomane to its paroxysm, by erecting this evening in an unmissable musical event of the Parisian season. In this respect, the audience was not disappointed, the soloists having offered us a real singing demonstration. We can however regret that for the needs of this concert version, the work was amputated, depriving us in particular of the intervention of the Charmeuse.
“Emotion misleads us, that’s its main merit” said Oscar Wilde. This is precisely what it feels like to have the privilege of hearing Ermonela Jaho. The artist approaches Thaïs in an emotional mode and seizes his subject head-on by throwing himself into the flames of his character’s throes. In this regard, Elle does not forget that the look of the mirror is that of a woman on the verge of madness who does not wander off, but literally loses herself. She also puts into her character a whole sensuality of an idealized Orient that we haven’t heard for a long time. Everything here is more intense, more overwhelming. So obviously, there is Renée Fleming, in her smooth elegance (“double cream”as Michel Sénéchal affectionately called him who made him work the role in San Francisco). And there is also Marina Rebeka, impetuous and flamboyant, who pulls out all the stops in this role. On the vocal level, Ermonela Jaho is in a middle way, and as such succeeds in the sublime synthesis between dramatic incandescence and stylistic delicacy. The singing is in tune, with its pregnant colors and its variegated line of pianissimi. It touches the heart, it moves. In addition, the soprano is the only one to move freely on stage and never lose sight of her partners, while they have their eyes riveted on their desks, which speaks volumes about her mastery of the role without the help of the score, and above all on his constant concern to be continually in touch with the rest of the cast. It is in this sense that she is also a humanly rare artist.
Penis Pati en Nicias can also boast of exceptional vocal means, and one can only yield to the contemplation of this sumptuous sound material with “Pavarottian” accents. We admire at the same time his sunny timbre, the ease of his high notes, his consummate art of nuances, the elegance of his singing line and his impeccable French diction. His charisma at each of his entries hits the bull’s eye. His consummate art of infinitesimal nuances grips the audience. It’s a technically sublime song, but we would expect however more emotions, that we feel more quivering the flesh behind this flawless voice.
Heroic baritone (and stoic, right in front of his desk) Ludovic Tezier embodies Athanaël in the purest tradition of French singing, mastering the declamatory art steeped in nobility and bravery in a minimalist but oh so effective style. Vocally, he is on familiar terms with the peaks, he is in full possession of his faculties. He has the timbre, the technique, the projection, even the vocals on the breath. He offers us a breathtaking final duet with Ermonela Jaho which immediately triggers thunderous applause. In terms of interpretation, it goes straight to the point. His incarnation is not adorned with the convolutions that certain Athanaëls espouse in a borrowed way. He reveals, behind the face of the preacher, with insolent assurance, the incandescent desires of a man assailed by his painful contradictions. The baritone is the lava smoldering under the embers of a volcano, the flames devouring it from within.
The rest of the cast does not demerit. Endowed with a resonant voice that immediately captures the attention, Verse by Guilhem in Palemon confers much nobility on this imposing figure of piety and wisdom, and manages to impose itself as much by the physique as by the voice. The Crobyle/Myrtale duo is fully functioning: the agile soprano Cassandra Berthon and the mezzo-soprano of character Marielou Jacquardcomplement each other as well as possible, even in the cascades of vocalizations with which Massenet adorns them. On the other hand, contrary to what was announced in the program, Cassandre Berthon will not take the steep and high-pitched vocal paths of La Charmeuse, the work presented having been amputated by her intervention. The mezzo Marie Gautrot confers, meanwhile, a beautiful presence to Sainte Albine with its moire tone that captures the attention.
In expressive gestures and a leaping posture at the pulpit, at the head of the excellent Orchester National de France, Pierre Bleuse struggles however to find the right mix and oscillates between slow tempo and orchestral outbursts far too fortissimo, going so far as to cover the voices of the soloists, leaving them no breathing space and thus forcing them to push their voices unnecessarily. However, he manages to avoid the pitfall of a syrupy Orientalism of complacency too often heard elsewhere. Within this halftone musical reading, the Meditation, pensive, introverted, offers a saving parenthesis of rare beauty in the midst of a contrasting orchestral performance. Fortunately, the Choeur de Radio France delivers a remarkable performance by inhabiting the score with powerfully lyrical conviction and making the group scenes a great success, thus reminding us that Thais is as much a choral fresco as a vocal one. The evening ends with a standing ovation, just reward for a vocal anthology served by exceptional voices.