Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson star in the Met's first new production of Jules Massenet's richly melodic Thaïs in thirty years. The rarely performed opera opens at the Met on Monday, December 8, and runs through January 8, with the December 20 matinee transmitted live worldwide as part of The Met: Live in HD series. "Fleming and Hampson made a heavenly match," Chicago Sun-Times critic Wynne Delacoma wrote when this production, which comes from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, opened there in 2002.
Set in Hellenistic Egypt, Thaïs is the story of an ascetic monk, Athanaël (Hampson), who convinces the beautiful courtesan Thaïs (Fleming) to dedicate her life to God, only to find himself tormented by his attraction to her. Jesús López-Cobos conducts the sensuous and melodic score, with tenor Michael Schade as Thaïs's lover, Nicias. All three singers are performing their roles for the first time at the Met. The production, which comes from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, is by John Cox. Fashion designer Christian Lacroix has designed new costumes for Renée Fleming. Lacroix recently designed Fleming's costumes for Act II of La Traviata, which she sang at the Met's Opening Night Gala. Duane Schuler is the lighting designer, and Sara Jo Slate makes her Met debut as choreographer.
Composed by Massenet as a star vehicle for the beautiful American soprano Sybil Sanderson, Thaïs was staged at the Met for the legendary divas Geraldine Farrar in 1917 and Maria Jeritza in 1922, both of whom were idolized by the public as much for their physical allure as for their singing. The 1939 revival featured Helen Jepson and Marjorie Lawrence alternately in the title role, with John Charles Thomas and John Brownlee as Athanaël. The opera was last seen at the Met in 1978 in a new production starring Beverly Sills in the title role and Sherrill Milnes as Athanaël. John Cox's new production will be the Met's fourth.
About the performers
Renée Fleming made her fifth Opening Night appearance at the Met this year at a gala created around her in which she sang staged scenes from three operas: Verdi's La Traviata, Massenet's Manon, and Strauss's Capriccio. For the first time, audiences in theaters throughout the Americas could see Opening Night as part of The Met: Live in HD series. When Fleming sang in this production of Thaïs at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2002, critic John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune wrote, "Fleming was Thaïs. Her alluring soprano proved as warm and voluptuous as the part requires, her legato sensuous, high notes pure and shining." Later this season in March, Fleming returns to one of her best known parts, the title role in Dvorák's Rusalka. She portrayed two Verdi heroines at the Met last season, Violetta in La Traviata and Desdemona in Otello, the latter a role she had not sung since 1995. She was Rosina in the world premiere of John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) and has also sung the title roles in three Met premieres: Carlisle Floyd's Susannah (1999), Bellini's Il Pirata (2002), and Handel's Rodelinda. (2004). In addition, she was the Countess Almaviva in Jonathan Miller's new production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (1998). In all, Fleming has sung more than 150 performances on the Met stage as well as numerous concerts with the Met Orchestra.
Baritone Thomas Hampson sang Germont in Act II of Verdi's La Traviata on Opening Night of this season. He reprises the title role in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, for which he is well known, in January. When Hampson played Athanaël in this production of Thaïs at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2002, Opera critic Lawrence A. Johnson raved that he sang with "unerring textual sensitivity and subtle dynamic shading without ever losing keen-edged dramatic force." Last season at the Met, Hampson was Don Carlo in Verdi's Ernani. He has portrayed the title character in two new productions here, Busoni's Doktor Faust (2001)-which had never been performed at the Met-and in Mozart's Don Giovanni (2004), directed by Marthe Keller. Since his 1986 Met debut as the Count in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, Hampson has sung 20 major roles in a diverse repertoire.
Michael Schade appeared at the Met last year as Tamino in Julie Taymor's production of Die Zauberflöte, a role for which Musical America says his "exquisite tenor makes him ideal." Schade made his Met debut as Jaquino in Beethoven's Fidelio in 1993 and went on to sing Alfred in Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, Count Almaviva in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and Don Ottavio in Mozart's Don Giovanni.
Jesús López-Cobos, the Music Director of Madrid's Teatro Real, returns to the Met for the first time since 2005, when he conducted Massenet's Manon. His other performances were in 1978, when he made his Met debut with Cilèa's Adriana Lecouvreur and conducted a new production of Donizetti's La Favorita with Luciano Pavarotti as Fernando. López-Cobos is also Music Director Emeritus of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, for which he served as Music Director from 1986 to 2001. Previously he was General Music Director of the Deutsche Opera Berlin and Music Director of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra.
About the production team
John Cox directed the Met's first-ever production of Richard Strauss's Capriccio in 1998. He also directed new productions of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1982) and Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (1991), as well as a revised production of Massenet's Werther (1999). Internationally acclaimed for his work in opera, theater, film, and television, Cox has served as Glyndebourne's Director for Productions, Artistic Director of Scottish Opera, and Production Director at the Royal Opera Covent Garden.
Duane Schuler has created lighting designs for new productions of 21 operas at the Met, most recently for the world premiere of Tan Dun's The First Emperor in 2006. He was the lighting designer for the world premiere of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby (1999) and for four operas that had not previously been seen at the Met: Carlisle Floyd's Susannah (1999), Wolf-Ferrari's Sly, Bellini's Il Pirata, and WIlliam Bolcom's A View from the Bridge, all in 2002. Schuler has worked with opera, ballet, and theater companies around the world and is a partner in the theater and lighting consulting firm Schuler Shook.