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Massenet's Thaïs, performed in-concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 7, 2019.

Catching an in-concert performance of an opera is a bit like reading a play. Admittedly, it’s not the full picture. You absorb the text and perhaps satisfy your imagination with some italicized stage directions, but clearly, the work is not meant to be read, rather to be seen and heard. In-concert opera is a similarly selective experience. It features no costumes, no sets, no staging. The “show” is the music, and the arresting image of a cast of singers dressed in their best black-tie, flanked by a full orchestra and the uniform rows of a 100-strong chorus.

Like a great play, the kind that oozes drama from the margins of its pages, Jules Massenet’s Thaïs is an opera that holds its own, even in concert. It’s the kind of work that is built upon quality, not dependent on lavish sets or curious staging to land its dramatic wallop. Tension is inherent in the score and its famously difficult title role; there’s an unofficial, exclusive class of soprano who can sing it, so small that the tricky task of finding a Thaïs is part of the reason the opera is so rarely done.

Against the odds, however, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra makes a grand impression with its Thaïs, the kind that’s only possible with great music-making. Canadian Erin Wall, plucked from that aforementioned exclusive class of soprano, is an utter force in the title role. And Sir Andrew Davis, the TSO’s interim artistic director, conducts the score with an audible level of personal love for the piece. In his brief introduction, he called it “one of my favourite operas.”

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Even upon first hearing, Thaïs might now be one of my favourites, too. It helps that the story is just as juicy as the music: Thaïs is a courtesan, famed for her beauty and her devotion to mortal love. Essentially, she’s a sex worker, and so excellent at her craft that she earns that special sort of status only available to women under patriarchal rule. Athanaël (sung wonderfully by Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins) is a monk who casts aside all worldly pleasures, instead choosing divine love and its promise of eternal life. Athanaël has heard of the famed Thaïs, and he comes to find her, convert her to Christianity and save her soul.

Frustrating stuff, and the source of excellent drama. How presumptuous of Athanaël to decide he knows best for a woman he’s never met. How sad, that Thaïs cannot appreciate her own entrepreneurship and instead is racked with fear of losing her beauty to age. How manipulative of Athanaël to denigrate Thaïs’s work and prey upon her wish for eternal youth for his own agenda. And how gross to see that, underneath all of his pious, I’m-doing-it-for-your-own-good blabbering, Athanaël is really lusting after Thaïs like all the other men in her life – and he’s making his spiritual struggle her problem. Not even the insatiable Nicias, Thaïs’ most recent client (sung with a delightfully carefree holler by Andrew Staples), would put that upon her.

Wall shows us a real, whole woman in Thaïs, never a caricature in black and white. Her soprano sound has both youth and maturity in it, even a panting quality that reminds us that Thaïs is in the business of sex. Hopkins brings a warm and stoic sound to Athanaël, walking the line between the learned composure of a monk and the white-knuckled battle of a man in conflict with his own virile body.

The TSO’s performance of Thaïs lingers in the mind well after the final notes ring out. Gorgeously presented, there’s little to stop a listener from being enraptured by Massenet’s music. The libretto by Louis Gallet sticks like a great piece of erotica, littered with provocative words such as “vile” and “scent” and “flesh” to remind us that sex is just as ubiquitous as piety. This is a generous opera, one that gives you what you want out of an opera with its lush melodies, including the famous “Meditation,” achingly played by TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow. Still, it offers even more than that: Characters who come in shades of grey, who make it hard for listeners to enjoy simple, smug catharsis.

The TSO’s in-concert performances of Thaïs will be recorded live and released on Chandos Records.

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