Thaïs

 

Jules Massenet Thaïs to libretto by Louis Gallet. Directed 2008 by Stefano Poda at the Teatro Regio Torino.  Stars Barbara Frittoli (Thaïs, actress and courtesan), Lado Ataneli (Athanaël, a Cenobite monk), Alessandro Liberatore (Nicias, a philosopher), Maurizio Lo Piccolo (Paléman, an old monk), Diego Matamoros (A servant), Eleonora Buratto (Crobyle, a slave), Ketevan Kemoklidze (Myrtale, a slave), Nadežda Serdyuk (Albine, an abbess), and Daniela Schillaci (La Charmeuse, a ballet dancer).  Gianandrea Noseda conducts the Orchestra and Chorus of The Teatro Regio Di Torino (Chorus Master Roberto Gabbiani). Choreography, set, lighting, and costume design by Stefano Poda! Directed for TV by Tiziano Mancini. Sung in French. Released 2009, disc has dts-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound. Grade B+

Stefano Poda, one of the most distinctive opera directors, has been involved in some 100 productions including at least 15 in his “unity style” in which he designs and directs everything that happens on the stage. His unity productions typically involve monumental (often multi-level) surreal modern sets that occupy the entire stage area and are decorated with elaborate designs, giant unique stage props and structures, and grand coordinated color schemes (often white, black, and red) that undergird the sets and extend to his unique costumes —- all supported by unusual dramatic lighting. The designs usually incorporate modern themes blended with classical motifs. He tends to put massive choral forces on the stage in identical costumes. Finally, he adds specially trained dance forces that often appear as close to naked as possible. Poda directs the movements of the dancers in manner that most choreographers would probable call pageantry or gymnastics.

It's 2018, and this is still our only HDVD of Thaïs. This opera lends itself splendidly to the Poda unity style approach, and the result is a tour de force of design which remains one of most visually spectacular opera HDVDs ever made. Let's start with a few screenshots:

The Cenobite monks miss their leader Athanaël, who has retreated to the wilderness to further purify himself:

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The actress and courtesan Thaïs (Barbara Frittoli) has seduced the people away from the monks. Here Poda comes up with a spectacular camouflage trick: a gown that manages to make Frittoli appear 10 years younger and 30 pounds lighter than she really is!

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Athanaël (Lado Ataneli) confronts Thaïs in her palace. He challenges her to find God:

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But Thaïs has been invited to a big party:

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The slave girls and entertainers Crobyle (Eleonora Buratto) and Myrtale (Ketevan Kemoklidze) have spectacular parts:

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And there is a big chorus and scads of dancers in various platoons:

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Still, Thaïs abandons her lascivious life to seek God under the tutelage of Athanaël:

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Thaïs has found refuge, but now Athanaël finds himself consumed by carnal desires:

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The images above convey the entire rather thin plot. Here execution is all, and the critics were sharply divided on everything. The well-known Hugo Shirley, writing for musicalcriticism.com, approved of the main musical contributions of Frittoli, Ataneli, and conductor Noseda, but he was less enthusiastic about the "production's penchant for the pretentious." Chris Mullins, writing for Opera Today, noted that Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson, signing at the Met, were better than Frittoli and Ataneli. But he further admits that many viewers are likely to be "fascinated by Poda's over-the-top aesthetic, part dance and performance art spectacle, part out-of control fashion runway show." Mark Pappenheim hated everything, including "slow-motion calisthenics masquerading as choreography" and screeching by  Frittoli.

A main objective of this website is to celebrate the video aspects of the arts, so we  tilt in favor of Poda's total design effort. We have watched this several times over the years on 3 different TVs (each bigger than the one before). We conclude that the more we see it, the more we enjoy the music; and the bigger the screen, the better this comes across. Still, we have to agree that the singers in this production are not quite on par with the stars you see at the Met, La Scala, or the Paris Opera. So we drop from an A to a B+ grade.

Alas, there's no decent YouTube video of this. There is a YT video of a revival of this show in São Paulo in 2015, but it's not the same as the Torino digital file published by Arthaus.