It is difficult to believe that Massenet's opera was based on a novel. One expects such works to have an overabundance of incident and character interest... But unlike other French-novel-derived pieces like La Traviata and Massenet's own Manon (not to mention the fascinatingly unorthodox Manon Lescaut of Puccini, premiered the year before this piece), nothing changes between the scenes of Thaïs -- and nothing happens in them either. The opera lumbers predictably along, each act doggedly working to a capping climax of drama that (despite being in sight the entire time) doesn't quite come off.
It's not helped, in this aspect, by the inoffensive if fairly handsome John Cox production on display. Maury has already covered the notable visual bits (Renee's outfits: Lacroix darling Lacroix; sets, lighting/color scheme, and other outfits: apparently shared with Flimm's Salome, though less interesting without that production's glass), but at least as obvious is Cox's lack of interest in sharpening Massenet's story or dramatic course. Though it does cut most of the ballet, the production neither propels nor connects the action; its physicality is piecemeal and conventional. In some cases this sort of economy is a virtue: some directors see one story in everything (and we can only hope it's an interesting one), while some few see a variety -- to see none at all at least does no active harm. (Cox's turntable-based Barber, for example, was more effective and true to Rossini than the busy, overthought Bartlett Sher production with which Peter Gelb replaced it.) Here it's less useful.
Jesus López-Cobos wasn't going to fire up the evening either. Though he accompanied sympathetically from the pit, his interest in the score seemed more in the textural play of the score's passionate, elegant, and lyrical elements than in dramatic urgency.
But why spend so much time talking about such things? The run is a vehicle for Renee Fleming (and, to a lesser extent, Thomas Hampson), and anything more would be gravy. And though her impersonation of the title character doesn't really have the bodily eroticism of the old-timers described by Peter Davis in his curtain-raiser, she delivers.
The part calls for her to be fascinating and seductive, and Fleming does it with her singing. Though it's almost shocking to me that her top is now merely mortal (she missed the two Ds in the final scene, though it didn't seem so important at the time), the sensual star quality of her voice remains. And even the Flemingisms of manner and phrase well suit this explicitly theatrical character who goes from indulgence to asceticism with admirable wholeheartedness.
Hampson -- as the monk who jealously converts Thaïs but finds himself converted in turn -- did well, in fact getting stronger as the night went along. Whether this was just the course of things or his instrument simply responding to being (gradually) freed from having to sound composed and warm, I'm not sure, but his agony was as stirring as it's usually been of late.
The tenor role, Nicias -- Thaïs' worldly man of the moment -- was well filled by Michael Schade. The role is fairly high and doesn't require any outrageous beauty, and seemed to highlight his virtues more than the Mozart and Rossini parts he otherwise does. Leah Partridge sang the high phrases of her even smaller part ("La Charmeuse") with an appealing clarity and focus. Alain Vernhes made his Met debut here as the head of the monastic sect but left little impression. Also debuting -- as one of Nicias' girls -- was Lindemann singer Ginger Costa-Jackson (who, to some confusion, has also been known as Ginger Jackson and Emilia Costa).
The stars on stage did their part. But the biggest star of the night might have been the man who got the first curtain call, not the last: violinist David Chan, whose solo playing in the opera's most famous excerpt (the "Méditation" between the scenes of Act II) was the highlight of the evening. Met broadcast reruns have reminded me of late how great Raymond Gniewek (concertmaster from 1957 to 2000) was in these long solos, but Chan's playing (he's one of the two current Met concertmasters) is itself terrific: elegant, warm, and long-breathed, about as good Massenet as you could want.
UPDATE (1:15PM): An anonymous commenter (and not to hector, but please see this post) notes that Laura Hamilton was the violin soloist last night. Given the size and importance of this solo part (and the fact that he/she gets a curtain call), perhaps the Met should start listing the violinist in advance on its public cast lists...
UPDATE 2 (12/15): To dispel any confusion from the above update -- David Chan played performance #1 (about which I initially wrote), Laura Hamilton performance #2 (which had already happened before I made this post). I might return to opening review posts with the performance date(s).