Review: Minnesota Opera’s “Thais”

Kelly Kaduce as Thais. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Minnesota Opera’s production of “Thais” is a lavish spectacle that will leave you breathless. Stage Director Andrea Cigni masterfully brings to life the two disparate worlds of the main characters Thais and Athanael – two worlds that are destined to never coexist.

Composed by Jules Massenet and first performed at the Opera Garnier in Paris in 1894, the story centers on the devout monk Athanael and his desire to convert Thais, the infamous courtesan and priestess of Venus. Along their conflicted spiritual journeys the two characters ultimately switch roles – Thais having a chaste religious rebirth and Athanael abandoning his faith in the hope of fulfilling his fleshly desire for Thais.

Kelly Kaduce shines as Thais, her glittering soprano equally capable at hushed seduction as well as divine epiphany, masterfully capturing the dual-sided nature of the character. Likewise, Lucas Meachem brings an impressive baritone and an imposing presence to Athanael, a man deeply rooted in his theological convictions but increasingly lost by his growing feelings for Thais.

One of the true highlights of the evening is Set and Costume Designer Lorenzo Cutuli’s gorgeous designs, which capture the two distinct worlds of “Thais”. The setting for the orderly, ecclesiastical world of Athanael is dominated by stark whites and silvers. It is in a dream of Athanael’s that Thais’ materialistic world is first revealed – a world draped in the rich, amber tones of gold and yellow. The slow reveal of this as a backdrop rises is rapturous, and akin to a divine mystery being unveiled. Throughout the evening Cutuli’s perfect combination of setting and costume makes the stage look like a Romantic painting come to life. Just when I thought one particular scene could not look any more beautiful, rose petals started to fall from above the stage. A slight misstep is the odd scenery choice in the third act that does not mesh well with the mostly traditional approach taken in the rest of the opera. But in regards to the overall visual design, I guarantee you will not see another production in the Twin Cities this ravishing for many seasons to come.

The orchestra’s adept performance of Massenet’s ethereal music is the perfect complement to the magnificent visuals seen on stage. Conductor Christopher Franklin deftly leads his players throughout the work’s breathtaking score. In particular, the famous “Meditation” is handled here with great care, with Thais’ spiritual conversion represented by seraphic dancers performing inspired choreography by Heidi Spesard-Noble. It’s a shame that the violin soloist is not credited in the program. It’s beautiful, and the talented artist deserves credit for their work.

My favorite moment of the evening is Thais’ first entrance in “C’est Thais, l’idole fragile”. Massenet’s music here is exquisite in its soft, sensual beauty, and Kaduce and the orchestra deliver it with assured grace and loveliness. Their performance, combined with Cutuli’s dream-like visuals, make the moment the closest I’ve come to feeling pure bliss in a theater for a long time. I advise you to run, not walk, to get your tickets to this theatrical experience now – you won’t regret it. I know I’ll keep it as one of my very favorite operatic memories of all time.

5 out of 5 stars.

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