Comparison between the festival's opening concert, Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri, and this week's concert performance of Massernet's Thaïs is interesting both for the similarities and the differences. Both are rarely performed, and there is the same reason in both cases: neither work is much to write home about.
Thaïs tells a not especially interesting story of a priest who sets out to bring an infamous courtesan back to God and, with remarkable and implausible ease, does. There are a lot of dull moments in between, the whole of the first scene for example, which adds little to the plot and is especially drab musically. So much so that I found myself thinking that if it carried on like this I might not come back after the interval.
Fortunately in scene two the titular Thaïs shows up, along with the primary reason for staging the piece: her showy soprano part. It has to be said that if you didn't have a great singer in the role the opera would be a very long three hours. Fortunately the festival had engaged Erin Wall and she is in possession of an exceptional instrument, displaying both laser-like precision and power, not to mention sheer beauty be it at high or soft volumes. Of course, she is known to festival audiences after having done a similarly fine turn in last year's Mahler 8. She was once again a treat to listen to. Yet this would have been the case with a number of other works which might not have had the same flaws.
If that seems to imply that Wall was the sole redeeming feature of the evening, this would be unfair. The rest of the cast were pretty solid too, though Stacey Tappan didn't quite nail her role as La Charmeuse. In fairness to her, and indeed the opera's only other big role, Quinn Kelsey as the priest, all but the very finest performance was going to pale next to Wall.
The big difference between Thaïs and the opening concert was the overall calibre of the performance and the way the RSNO under Andrew Davis made the most of the score. Indeed, after two uneven night's from the Montreal symphony, it was a treat to have orchestral playing of this standard and a reminder of how lucky we are in Scotland. This was particularly true in the fearsome precision of the set pieces, such as the fire in which Thaïs torches her possessions or the storm through which the priest races in order to be at her side when she dies (apparently of self-inflicted penitent over-flagellation). However, Davis also did well at holding the momentum in the quieter passages, though it still had its longueurs. Then there was the quality of the solo playing, leader James Clark in the meditation especially, but particularly after my lament that the Montreal's flute wasn't the equal of Katherine Bryan, it was nice that she had some passages early on to show exactly what I meant. It is a bit of a puzzle that this is the orchestra's sole appearance at the festival. Also a little strange that Deneve wasn't at the helm for this French opera, repertoire he generally excels in. Still, no apology need be made for Davis.
That leaves only the festival chorus, who were on similarly fine form. Though they did well in their few big moments, their highlight came when the women alone, still seated, provided the hushed voices of the White Sisters.
The performance was dedicated to the late Lord Harewood, EIF director in the early 60s. An earlier publicity email suggested that the opera was his favourite. A claim that seemed a little unlikely, given the rival choices (though taste and favourites are funny things) and Mills did not repeat it in his well judged tribute.
I'm not sure I'd rush to hear the piece again, but I'm glad to have heard it and, to return to where I started, this was a performance that showed you can make something of a less than great work.