Sir Andrew Davis conducts TorontoSymphony Orchestra soloists, and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in Massenet’s Thaïs; Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Last night’s foréee into grand opera by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall was indeed very special. It is rare to attend concert versions of grand opera with full orchestra. (I haven’t been a fan of the scaled-down piano accompanied versions). TSO’s Interim Music Director Sir Andrew Davis led an outstanding cast in a dramatically and musically charged performance of Massenet’s Thaïs that kept me riveted for the full two and a half hours. That the performance was being recorded for the Chandos recording label meant that orchestra, soloists and chorus were all fully prepared to make it a memorable night.

​Jules Massenet’s Thaïs is new to Toronto audiences in any form (stage or concert), but in the hands of Davis, the TSO, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and a cast led by the splendid voices of soprano Erin Wall and baritone Joshua Hopkins, this reviewer was left musically fulfilled while wishing for a fully staged version to come to Toronto at some future point.

Thaïs, set in the 4th century AD, has themes that are as relevant today as they ever were. It has been a universal desire of humans to seek a spiritual basis for life, and at the same time, religions of all sorts, in giving form to spiritual aspirations, have tried to impose their rules and morality on others. Athanaël, a Christian monk who has left his study of philosophy with his former friend Nicias to take up the penitent life in a monastery has a zealous desire to convert to his monastic lifestyle Thaïs, the beautiful courtesan with a carnal life of love and lust.

Taking that theme to our present context, in our recent election, the fear of religious beliefs being imposed on the country was at least in part the reason for the results. The question, “Do you believe homosexuality is a sin?” is still in the news. Ironically in the opera, the monk Athanaël’s own carnal desires come to the surface while it is Thaïs who finds peace in her spirituality. Was Athanaël’s obsession to convert Thaïs rooted in his physical attraction to her from the outset? The question isn’t answered, but it does beg the question of why people seem to have a need to impose their beliefs on others.

The opera’s provocative themes notwithstanding, this performance was about the music, the rich orchestral orchestration and the stellar singing. Led by a cast of mostly Canadian artists with international reputations, there wasn’t a weak link. Erin Wall, last heard in Toronto in the COC’s production of Strauss’s Arabella, was breathtakingly stunning. She has a voice that rivals any of the world’s leading sopranos. And this is not an easy score. Written for Massenet’s close friend, American soprano Sybil Sanderson, it is renowned for its difficulty. The aria “Dis-moi que je suis belle et que je serai belle éternellement” was sung with full-bore emotion speaking to the universal fear of aging and dying.

The Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins was the perfect counterpart to Wall as the monk Athanaël. His vibrant voice had enormous power when required and yet could project intensity in quieter passages. This was my first-time hearing Hopkins and he showed his worthiness for the leading roles he enjoys on the world’s biggest stages.

British tenor Andrew Staples as the pleasure-seeking Nicias and bass-baritone Nathan Berg as the monk Palémon who tries to dissuade Athanaïel from trying to convert Thaïs were both full value for their contributions both vocally and dramatically. Staples had an infectious energy as a character actor and Berg had a stoic presence perfect for his role. American soprano Liv Redpath and Canadian mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig sang delightfully as the temptresses Crobyle and Myrtale. This was a superb cast throughout and also included soprano Stacey Tappan (La charmeuse), mezzo-soprano Emilia Boteva (Albine) and baritone Kieran Kane (Un serviteur).

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir displayed its versatility performing several roles, as a group of monks, citizens of Alexandria, nuns, and off-stage angels. I was especially impressed by the warm tone and blend in the men’s voices.

For an opera production to have the orchestra on-stage is a rarity and for the Massenet score, it accentuates one of the striking elements of the music, Massenet’s brilliant orchestration. I made note of the lush strings, unexpected solos by various woodwind instruments as counterpoint to lyrical vocal solos, off-stage ensembles, and subtly performed percussion effects including off-stage wind and thunder devices. Concertmaster Jonathan Crow brought tears to even the most seasoned listener in the famous ‘Méditation’ solo. The TSO was at its finest. Kudos go to conductor Davis for bringing out the best in the orchestra. Will the recording of this production rival those earlier ones with Beverley Sills and Renée Fleming? It’s hard to imagine that either of those recordings could top what we heard last night.

Sir Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra will next perform a program of Russian masters with violinist Karen Gomyo on Wednesday, November 13 at 8pm. Concertmaster Jonathan Crow will lead the orchestra in a program that will include Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons on Saturday November 16, 2019 at 8pm with additional performances on Sunday November 17 (at George Weston Recital Hall) Wednesday November 20 and Thursday November 21st.

Joshua Hopkins, Sir Andrew Davis, Erin Wall, TorontoSymphony Orchestra and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in Massenet’s Thaïs; Photo credit: Jag Gundu

A stellar cast and brilliant orchestral playing result in a remarkable performance by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra!

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON November 10th 2019


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