Last weekend, the Minnesota Opera closed its 55th season with its first production of Massenet’s unjustly underperformed opera, Thais. Newoutpost’s ties with the mid-western company are strong (this blog, in fact, debuted with their production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda back in the winter of 2011), and coupled with our desire to take part in this significant musical event, we embarked in yet another brief musical pilgrimage to beautiful St. Paul. We attended the penultimate performance given on Saturday May 19th, and taking into account the audience’s reaction as well as the artistic values on display that evening, we can happily declare the presentation a complete success.
Leading the musical proceedings was the clear and refined baton of maestro Christopher Franklin, who, save some instances of rushed tempi, gave a detailed and inspired reading of the delicious score. Together with concertmaster Allisson Ostrander, maestro Franklin offered a tender and sumptuous reading of the opera’s famous Meditation interlude. In the more utilitarian sense, his baton was also accommodating, and provided his principals the necessary support and room to expand vocally. The complicated ensembles were cleanly managed, and underlined the strong work ethic of the Minnesota Opera Chorus and their chorus master, Andrew Whitfield.
The Minnesota Opera is well known for its strong emphasis on production values, a fact that has often polarized your friends at newoutpost depending on the choice of director. This production of Massenet’s Thais was no exception, and the company lavished undue attention to the look of things. The staging by Lorenzo Cutùli is replete with symbolism. The temple scenes, framed by a fortress-like wall made of a somewhat reflective and inflexible material, suggest the obvious and are often dominated by a massive byzantine cross. In contrast, the Alexandria scenes, bathed in ambers and reds, imply the carnal setting where Thais’ sensuality has thrived. Between these two contrasting worlds stands the severe and shining desert, a spiritual and visual palate cleanser of sorts. Members of the the Zenon Dance company provided deeper symbolism, and their involvement was generally delightful even if Mr. Cutùli’s costumes did not always flatter them. The choreography devised by Heidi Spesard-Noble was evocative during the ballet sequence, but a bit too much of a good thing during the orchestral interlude which divides the opera’s final scenes.
Stage Director Andrea Cigni thrived in his handling of the juxtaposition between religious mysticism and carnal desire, navigating effortlessly between the impressive and decadent Alexandria tableau and the austere monastery environments. While it is true that he may have never seen a piece of confetti he did not like, the motivations of his characters were never in question. It certainly did not hurt that he had a talented cast of principals at his disposal.
Despite not boasting title role status, the part of Athanael shares more than half of the evening’s musical bulk, and proper casting of this role is crucial for the success of any performance of Thais. Furthermore, Athanael’s music is of a more subtle and somber nature, and an artist not quite up to par will find the role thankless and an evening’s hard work. Lucky of all, Minnesota Opera hit the jackpot by casting Lucas Meachem as the conflicted religious zealot. A native of North Carolina, Mr. Meachem debuted with the Minnesota Opera back in 2009 as Valentin in Gounod’s Faust, and if his singing last weekend is indicative of his proclivities in the French repertoire, it must have been quite the event. His ample baritone is clarion, unleashed through steady emission and distinguished by a tone of great beauty and gossamer clarity. His interpretation of the score, as well as the character’s unflappable sense of purpose and inner conflict, was distinguished by nuanced and careful gradation, and he held the audience rapt from his tender whisper to the broad smiting growls that dominated both ensemble and orchestra. Mr. Meachem’s physicality followed suit, and the stentorian voice was a perfect match to the tall, imposing figure he cut onstage. His diction, too, set his efforts apart, coming closer than most to Andre Tubeuf’s famous quip on the French style: “Good singing is first of all good speaking.” These qualities allowed the artist to take full advantage of every dramatic and musical opportunity presented to him by the score, and Mr. Meachem is deserving of the evening’s top honors.
For this first production of Massenet’s Thais in its 55 year history, the Minnesota Opera company bestowed the singular honor of casting the title role upon the brow of soprano Kelly Kaduce. A frequent artist in the company’s roster, Ms. Kaduce’s Thais earned admiration from the audience despite an instrument not naturally suited for the role. The singer to settle that complex statement, Sybil Sanderson, the celebrated American soprano for whom the role was written, is coincidentally resting about an hour away in Lakewood Cemetery. If the critics and the scores written for her talents are to be taken at face value, the blueprint for a Thais demands a solid and stable emission in all registers over three octaves, a staggering flexibility, the ability to negotiate a limpid legato throughout her scale, and, perhaps most important of all, a strong and luxurious upper register. As applied to Ms. Kaduce, these requirements were fulfilled with some caveats. Her vocal pedigree is full lyric, but hints of a transition to the lyrico spinto variety have been heard in her singing even back in 2003, when we first heard her as Pamina in the Atlanta Opera’s infamous Indiana Jones themed production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote. Even then, her soprano was central to a fault, meaning that the voice’s gravitational pull projects from the middle core outwards, creating a solid wall of sound capable of dominating the concerted pieces and ensembles in an impressive way. This sort of method, vital for the Italian roles that have been the glory of Ms. Kaduce’s career thus far, can often yield unwanted side effects: The color of Ms. Kaduce’s lower tones often becomes muffled and veer tart, and though we suspect the extreme top register is available, access to it becomes restricted as the declamation of the middle tones grows wider and wider. This may explain the overall tightness in her management of the upper tessitura which hallmarked the whole of her performance, ultimately letting her down badly during the opera’s iconic final duet “Et toi, mon pere”.
Reservations aside, Ms. Kaduce brought a definite allure to the exotic Massenet vehicle. Physically, she is undeniably attractive and exudes the all important mystical sex appeal needed to convince in the part. Perhaps aware of her incongruencies, her singing was committed, generous in scope, and her interpretation often profound. While the famous mirror aria was delivered with staunt verve and considerable elan, it was the lesser known aria, “L’amour est une vertu rare” that touched the heart. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to state that the entirety of the desert scene, as sung by Ms. Kaduce and Mr. Meachem, has remained in our mind’s ear several days after the congratulatory ovations brought the curtain down on this well realized staging of this profound and delightful work. We can only hope that the opera continues to gain steam and ultimately joins the ranks of the more established french operas in the standard repertoire. Performance such as Ms. Kaduce’s most certainly further the case for it.
The supporting cast was equally fine. Making his Minnesota Opera debut as the ostentatious Nicias, tenor Gerard Schneider gave a winning performance of a role that can be categorized as thankless. The part has no significant solo, and is often heard shouting at the top of the staff over a very loud ensemble. Mr. Schneider managed his assignment with aplomb, and we hope to hear him in the future in more musically flattering circumstances. Bass Wm. Clay Thompson gave a solid reading of the solemn monk Palemon, and Jeni Houser’s perky soprano dazzled the audience by chirping through her brief cameo appearance as La charmeuse. Soprano Michelle Liebl was a fine Crobyle, and mezzo soprano Nadia Fayad accomplished the double dare challenge of portraying the contrasting roles of Myrtale and Albine with excellence.
Though the Minnesota Opera’s 2017-18 season has come to a close, the company has already released its offerings for next season. For more information, please visit the company’s website at www.mnopera.org