Florida Grand Opera Thaïs Design Preview
by Renaud Doucet & André Barbe
Since the beginning, mankind has lived with doubts and desires. With Massenet’s opera we once again confront the continual battle between the everyday and the spiritual with essential questions like “Who are we really? What do we want? What do we run away from?” Has Thaïs really found her faith? We don’t know, but she has undeniably found peace. Her fear of growing old, her anguish as she confronts mortality in the aria “Dis-moi que je suis belle et que je serai belle éternellement ” (Tell me I am lovely, tell me I’ll be fair until the end of time) disappears when Athanaël offers her an eternal life – a life where pretense is no longer necessary, where she is no longer condemned in the eyes of the world. In the eye of God, she discovers serenity. But the eye of God can also push man’s fragile mind towards fanaticism and madness; the longing to please God can transform him from a god of love into a god of vengeance. The exaltation offered by most religions can easily be transformed into the need to punish differences. In his constant search for answers and reassurance, doubting man finds refuge and concealment in religious dogma. Louis Gallet’s libretto, based on the novel by Anatole France, questions the foundation and value of our spirituality. The monk Palémon warns Athanaël not to walk in the paths of the ungodly – or so eternal wisdom would tell us, “Ne nous mêlons jamais, mon fils, aux gens du siècle.” (Of what is he afraid?) Athanaël has studied philosophy with Nicias, who here represents the world of humanism; he decides to quit that world and put himself at the service of his faith. But in quitting the world is he not also renouncing to himself. Is isolation not just a form of flight? Athanaël must confront his nature as a man; religion will not help, for it is not God but his own dishonesty that will destroy him. Massenet takes us to Egypt in the 4th Century A.D., and to a confrontation between two worlds – the carnal one of Thaïs, which combines the Pagan cultures of both Egypt and Greece, where pleasure is the order of the day – and the world of Athanaël, Christian monk who wishes to convert Thaïs the sinner and save her from the pit of hell. We witness a prime moment of transition, full of conflict and doubts: The Egyptian Empire no longer exists, Greek civilization is on foreign ground, and we see the beginning of the Byzantine Empire.
The way the outside world looks at Thaïs, the way Athanaël looks at both Thaïs and God, the way Thaïs looks at herself and the way God looks at her, seems to us be best represented by an eye – an eye that sees and judges all. On the floor an oval platform represents different strata of civilizations, in the style of the Greek bas-reliefs and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The sacred eye of Osiris symbolizes eternal life, it is a counterpoint to the inner eye which allows Thaïs to lift her spirit and yield to peace. It seemed important to us first of all to present the symbolism of the work in a minimalist style without betraying the spirit of the piece. The costumes represent the spirit of the characters, whether they are the monks and nuns who are physically and spiritually grounded in their environment, or the actors and philosophers who represent the energy of a life “without any tomorrow “. It was also extremely important to us to maintain the orientalist themes which so enchanted the original audiences at the Paris Opera without in any way betraying the work itself.
You can see Thaїs in Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on May 3, 4, 6 & 10 or in Fort Lauderdale at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on May 15 & 17.