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Thaïs in Concert

Royal Opera House

CONCERTperformances of operas are usually a way of putting on a production without the vast costs associated with a fully dressed staging. Sometimes, though, it can take the singers and orchestra time to get in the swing of things without the drama happening in front of them. This performance of Massenet's third great opera, a tale of God and sex in fourth century Egypt, was a case in point.

Andrew Davis had the baton and it wasn't until the Act 1's Ah! Ah! Ah! …Athanaël, c'est toi! some 25 minutes into proceedings that the House band really got going and from then on Davis displayed the energy he showed for many years when conducting the Last Night of the Proms.

Thaïs is the perfect opera for a concert performance. It is dramatic, has some excellent arias and duets, gives the chorus - and The Royal Opera House must have one of the most glamorous around - much to do, both on- and off-stage, and has a number of orchestral interludes, none more so that the famous Méditation, which is the staple diet of violin virtuosos everywhere.

But Thaïs is the calling card for one singer. If Callas was Tosca, Sutherland was Lucia, Mattila is Jenufa and Graham is The Composer, then Renée Fleming is Thaïs. It is debatable how much longer the American soprano can sing the role of the courtesan, or indeed wants to, but for now no one can match her. While the other performers had the libretto in front of them, she stood serene, without the need of prompting.

And how she stood. When Fleming took the stage, about half-hour into the performance, there was no doubt who the star was. A long Angel Sanchez-designed scarlet dress, with gleaming jewellery and a smile that said 'here I am'. Unlike some venues, though, there was no screaming applause at her entrance; Covent Garden is far more reserved.

Mind you, she had some competition in the singing stakes. Simone Alberghini, the Italian baritone, a late replacement for the unwell Thomas Hampson, was outstanding as Athanaël, the Cenobite monk who tries, too successfully for his own liking, to turn Thaïs to God. His duets with Fleming did not need a fully staged production to help convey the drama. Robert Lloyd as the old Cenobite monk who looks over Athanaël was making a swift return to Covent Garden after a recent role in Don Giovanni.

But it was Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja, a co-passenger on my recent flight back from the island, who impressed the most. His voice has developed remarkably in such a short space of time, mainly through his careful choice of roles, and this performance as the wealthy Nicias, who buys Thaïs' company for a week, may well have been his best yet. "Demain! Demain! Demain!, je ne serai pour toi qu'un nom (Tomorrow! Tomorrow! Tomorrow, I shall be only a name to you)," they sing, summing up the clinical nature of the relationship.

His duet with Fleming, "C'est Thaïs, I'idole fragile (Thaïs, the frail idol)," was as good as it gets, and let's hope that he soon brings out a CD of such songs. His enthusiasm at the end of the performance when the singers were taking their bows was reminiscent of the excitement Karita Mattila shows when she knows the night has gone well.

This was a performance that fully deserved the wild applause at the end. Yes, even Covent Garden can let its hair down at times.

Review by Peter Wilson

Pictures - Alice Poulsen

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