Of all the operas that make women suffer — and there are many — Massenet’s “Thaïs” is one of the most gamy and unsettling.
A religious devotee, Athanaël, harbors strong sexual feelings for Thaïs, a prostitute. He suppresses them and decides she needs to be rescued from a life of debauchery.
He takes Thaïs to a nunnery, but the long journey exhausts her and makes her feet bleed. She dies from the effort of atonement. He realizes he was wrong to “rescue” her in the first place.
How do you make a satisfying evening at the opera out of that?
In its new staging of “Thaïs” at the Ordway, the Minnesota Opera’s answer is to field a strong cast of singers and handsome set designs by Lorenzo Cutùli.
The spectacle is at its most sumptuous in the Act 2 ballet, where dancers in gold costumes perform a glittering entertainment for Nicias, a nobleman who has been purchasing Thaïs’ favors.
There is more ballet in the famous “Meditation” sequence, where a clutch of sinuous figures in nude suits appear to the sleeping Thaïs, enacting her subconscious struggle with fleshly attractions.
A huge crucifix, with Christ painted on it, provides a striking visual motif in the production. It hangs over the opening scene, where Athanaël explains his intention to convert Thaïs to Christianity.
It looms again at the opera’s grim conclusion, where Thaïs dies on what appears to be a sacrificial altar. Some audience tittering could be heard in these climactic moments, perhaps prompted by the kitschy elements of both the scene itself and director Andrea Cigni’s staging of it.
Vocally it was a strong evening. Baritone Lucas Meachem was rock steady and authoritative as Athanaël, the zealot whose mission to redeem Thaïs leads to disaster. His body language occasionally seemed rather stiff and inexpressive for someone in the grip of writhing passions.
Gerard Schneider provided a colorful foil to Meachem as the sybaritic Nicias in his Minnesota Opera debut. Ardent and irreverent where Meachem was straight-laced and sober, Schneider’s ringing tenor made a sharp impression.
“Thaïs” is, naturally, nothing without a good Thaïs, and it had one in Winnebago, Minn., native Kelly Kaduce.
Initially a touch reticent in Act 1, Kaduce’s interpretation caught fire at the opening of Act 2, where she soliloquized on her fading beauty. From then on her portrait of the violently conflicted courtesan had a thrilling intensity.
The sensuality of the part occasionally seemed to throw her; witness her awkward straddling of Nicias in Act 1. But overall Kaduce’s was unquestionably a performance of stature.
There was fine work from the chorus and firm, sensitive shaping of the music from conductor Christopher Franklin. Marcus Dilliard’s lighting consistently added value to the staging’s atmospherics.
There are probably ways of framing “Thaïs” that make it more explicitly relevant to the gender conflict defining our current historical moment.
This Minnesota Opera production mainly dodged those deeper issues. But it looked good and sounded excellent, and maybe that is enough.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.