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Many people know Thaïs for its violin solo Méditation, or just by reputation – it usually has to wait for a diva who wants to grapple with both its vocal charms and its baritone. This is a serious recording conducted by Andrew Davis which goes a long way to helping us appreciate Massenet’s skills as a composer. Isn’t every recording serious? Hopefully, but Thaïs does have to contend with a reputation for being a bit of hoochie-coochie schlock ever since at the 1894 premiere one of soprano Sybil Sanderson’s shoulder straps broke during Act I. The posing diva, never shy, seemingly enjoyed the resulting gasp, catcalls and screams: her biographer says, ‘the frenzied spectators began to behave as if they were at the Folies Bergères’. (I admit I would give my eye teeth to have been there.) There is even a myth that the baritone’s name Athenaël was changed from the original Paphnuce as nothing rhymed with it expect puce and prépuce. A good story, but not true; after all, not a great deal rhymes with Thaïs. There is nothing quite so vulgar here.

Davis certainly wrings the last ounce of eroticism from the score, but without descending into pastiche. He really does highlight some of Massenet’s extraordinary eff ects – the aforementioned Vision in Act I, where we and Athanaël fi rst see Thaïs, is deliciously scored with woodwind against harp; it subtly gains pace here, as directed in the score – Tempo piu appassionato – and so avoids becoming gloopy. The opening to Act II set in Alexandria is a thrilling moment and Davis captures the excitement and glamour perfectly.

The cast is excellent. Erin Wall has a soprano that gains tonal interest as it ascends, so Sanderson’s high-lying lines suit her well: she does, however, decline the optional high ‘D’ in her big aria but does take them in the final bars, though swiftly, not tenuto as optimistically marked. From the top of the stave to ‘C’ the voice has a lot of spin. Her Athanaël is Joshua Hopkins, a high baritone voice with good vocal presence who racks up the anguish without becoming hysterical. Nicias is tenor Andrew Staples taking an excursion into this repertoire with a fresh and youthful voice.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is very responsive to Davis, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir full-toned. I would rank this new recording alongside two other available versions for Massenet devotees – the Renée Fleming recording for vocal glamour and Yves Abel’s idiomatic baton, and the DVD from Turin, directed exquisitely by Stefano Poda, admittedly somewhat undone by Barbara Frittoli’s vocally unalluring protagonist.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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