Among Massenet’s most enduring works is “Thaïs,” an exploration of two souls moving in completely opposite spiritual states.
The opera had its world premiere on March 16, 1984, with American soprano Sibyl Sanderson in the title role. The work was later revised and premiered on April 13, 1898. The opera has endured for a number of reasons. First off, many major sopranos have championed the title role, including Beverly Sills and Renée Fleming. Interestingly, the other reason for the opera’s continued success actually comes from one particular passage – the “Meditation” for solo violin; this piece has become a staple for concert violinists over the past century.
Short Plot Summary
A group of monks are going about their business when Athanaël, the most devout of them reveals that he has had visions of the courtesan Thaïs and believes that he must go to Alexandria to convert her to Christianity and save her. He is warned against this but goes.
He arrives to visit his friend Nicias at a feast where he runs into Thaïs. She tries to seduce him, but he resists.
Later that night Thaïs questions her life and notes that one day, she will not be as beautiful as she is now due to old age. Athanaël arrives and asks her to let him teach her the ways of God, but she resists. She meditates on Athanaël’s plea and eventually converts. Meanwhile, he finds himself vulnerable to her beauty.
Athanaël orders Thaïs to burn down her home and possessions. She does so, despite Nicias and his followers protesting. Eventually, Nicias respects the decision and distracts the crowd with money.
Eventually, Thaïs arrives at the convent, though Athanaël can’t get her out of his head; he has an erotic vision of her and realizes his sexual longing for the former courtesan. He returns to find her dying, though he pleads that she give in to him but she dies with the hopes of arriving in heaven.
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Watch and Listen
Here is a famed recording featuring Beverly Sills and Sherrill Milnes.