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01 August, 2017

Thaïs by Massenet – Concert performance at the Sydney Town Hall.

Thaïs by Massenet – Concert performance at the Sydney Town Hall.  Saturday 22nd July 2017. 
The Wiki page on this work states that the title role “is notoriously difficult to sing and is reserved for only the most gifted of performers. Modern interpreters have included Carol Neblett, Anna Moffo, Beverly Sills, Leontyne Price, Renée Fleming, and Elizabeth Futral.”  Now that Renee Fleming has announced her retirement from the opera stage one wondered from the publicity whether Nicole Car might be the world’s new Thaïs.  On Saturday’s performance there is little chance of this, despite a creditable performance overall.  One wonders at her advisors, agent and the opera company management with a talented singer so early in her career.  Furthermore, to sing a rehearsal then two performances within just a few days is something Renee Fleming has probably never done. 
The Sydney audience has been deprived of a winter opera season for the first time in 60 years due to incompetence of management.  Despite long announced repairs to the opera stage no viable replacement venue or venues were organised early enough causing cancellation of the main season.  Instead we have a few piecemeal efforts each of which could as easily have been mounted by the ABC or the private sector.  I believe the entire opera company board should be sacked and an administrator appointed.  An orchestra without a season, chorus sent home, principal singers unemployed and the public denied mainstream opera in the city of the world’s most recognisable opera house! 
Back to the performance which had many fine aspects, most notably an enlarged opera orchestra filling the enormous stage of the Town Hall under the skilled baton of Maestro Guillaume Tourniaire.  Massenet was at his most innovative and creative in his score for Thaïs, notably in the ‘Meditation’ without which the opera would probably be almost unknown.  Jun Yi Ma, orchestra leader and first violin played exquisitely in what became a concerto with humming chorus in the full operatic version.  So, in his genius, Massenet wrote one of the most accessible and beautiful pieces within an opera which can only be performed by a soprano with the rare talents of American Sibyl Sanderson (d. 1903) for whom he also wrote Esclamonde (whose only studio recording is by Joan Sutherland, such are its vocal demands).   The score also evokes every sentiment from morning riverside noises to ecstatic rhythmics, even one moment which sounds to me like a busy office with a telephone ringing! 
On her performance on Saturday night, it would appear that Ms Nicole Car has been ill-advised to take on this unique and challenging role, despite a stunning recent recording of the ‘mirror’ aria.  In contrast to her recording, Ms Car curtailed the terminal high note, losing Massenet’s intention.  This was not the only clipped high note and furthermore, she appeared uncomfortable in two high passages in the final duet.  A musical colleague mentioned ‘goldfishing’, a term I was not familiar with, possibly in relation to two quite low notes.  Of course opera is much more than high notes and low notes, yet when they are required an audience deserves to hear them.  Ms Car has a regal presence on stage, a pleasing vocal delivery with poise, accuracy and beauty. 
Company regular Richard Anderson as Palemon started proceedings with his elegant basso voice and even delivery.  French Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis, who is Nichole Car’s partner in real life and father of their young baby, sang the enormous role of Athanael with great aplomb.  He pushed the vocal limits without strain or inelegance, raising goose bumps in my case. 
Rich city-slicker and Thaïs’ current lover Nicias was performed by excellent company tenor Simon Kim.  As with the others, he sang accurately and with obvious knowledge of what he was singing.   Other supporting cast were also excellent along with male and female chorus situated behind the orchestra, next to the enormous pipe organ (which sadly was not used). 
The story of Massenet’s Egyptian masterpiece finds us in seamy and steamy Alexandria in the early Christian era where Athanael is trying to convince the object of his attention, Thaïs, to convert to a monastic life from her life of depravity as a follower of Venus, ensuring eternal life.  Only by the third act does he realise that he is physically attracted to Thaïs and by then she is dying.  He renounces God, Jesus and the scriptures in favour of the flesh … all too late, unfortunately.  But this IS opera! 
So I feel on the one hand that we were fortunate to hear this rare work but uncomfortable that our lead lady was misled to tackle such a role at this time. 
As a venue the Sydney Town Hall leaves much to be desired.  Little has changed since Nellie Melba sang here.  The single narrow entry (for security reasons I understand) led to a queue before the performance going most of the way down Druitt Street almost to Kent Street.  Disabled patrons were permitted to enter by the basement. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
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Thais Finale with Fleming and Hampson:
‘Mirror, mirror’ aria: