Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A Meditation on Thaïs

What do you think is going on in the opera Thaïs during this famous violin solo?
Listen. Imagine!
In five minutes everything will be different.

22 comments:

scribe said...

This is one of my favorite violin solos.

I've never heard the opera Thais, but this solo sounds romantic. I looked up on Wikipedia and found the opera is based on the novel Thais by Anatole France. Thais was some libertine that an Egyptian monk was trying to convert. From the solo, I imagine he may have giving in to her. Am I right?

Michael Dodaro said...

The Thais Meditation is a stunning musical composition and an example of a principle of artistic inspiration that is evident in many important works of art. If a composer chooses a transcendent theme, the music that results is likely to be elevated by the text and meaning being conveyed. The opera Thais is quite different than the novel by Anotole France, which is contemptuous of the monk Athanael and his desert spirituality. In the novel he is so intoxicated by Thais that he takes refuge from her on top of a pillar in an abandoned city. In the opera Athanael is, indeed, captivated by Thais, but the remarkable thing about this opera is that in the scene of this meditation the regal courtesan and connoisseur of the flesh is on the verge of conversion to Christianity.

scribe said...

Wow! Then I must hear the opera.

Can you give us some of the libretto of this scene? In English, of course.

Can you recommend a good recording?

Why did the composer deviate from the novel in the depiction of this meditation? What was Massenet's religious sensibilities? I think Anatole France was an agnostic at best.

The deviation toward a more positive outcome would be like the film adaptation of the novel "Barabbas" by Par Lagervist. The ending of the novel is disparaging of Christianity, whereas the film had a much more Christian ending, that is Barabbas finally converts. The last conversation he has with St. Peter is profound. For that reason, the film is much better than the novel, although it keeps the novel's edginess and grittiness.

Michael Dodaro said...

Here's a synopsis and some nice pictures. The whole site on Massenet is beautiful and looks interesting, though I can't vouch for the content. There is a quote from Anatole France, suggesting he liked the operatic rendition. Interesting because he apparently said, "I have only two enemies, Christ and chastity". I have drawn some conclusions of my own on this opera that can be found in the last few pages of Civilization and the Sublime.

I have two good recordings, the most recent with Renee Fleming and Tom Hamson, the older with Sills and Milnes. Both stil available.

I'm looking for a libretto online.

Michael Dodaro said...

Just read a bit of the synopsis. Better listen to the apotheosis. Whoever wrote synopsis just didn't get it.
There's a link in my essay.

Michael Dodaro said...

Thaïs Apotheosis

Also have a look at Herodiade

Massenet knows the battle of spirit and sense very well.

scribe said...

This all reminds me of a famous saint of Orthodoxy, St. Mary of Egypt. She would be both Thais and the monk rolled into one.

She is very much venerated in the Orthodox church because of her extreme asceticism (following a life of sin).

http://www.monachos.net/monasticism/mary_of_egypt/life.shtml

scribe said...

Your section regarding Massenet "Thais" in your article "Civilization and the Sublime" is really great.

Now I really want to hear this opera.

scribe said...

I believe Thais Meditation was also used as the theme for the early 1940s film "Intermezzo" which starred Leslie Howard and Ingrid Bergman. That film was about the adulterous relationship between a famous professional musician and his female protege/accompaninist. Some of the ideas of free love in it were quite scandalous.

Quite different from the opera in its handling of sexual issues. There was no redemption, of course, just the usual fall after such affairs.

Michael Dodaro said...

And, of course, Athanael in the opera is in the role of St. Anthony. Ascetics were considered spiritual athletes in the third century. St. Augustine's Confessions contain his, to me, disturbing conclusion that being a Christian required putting away his mistress rather than marrying her, although he kept their son.

scribe said...

I thought Augustine handled that badly, too--not very fair to her.

But I also understand that he was trying to leave behind the passions, so to him that meant no women, married or otherwise.

Michael Dodaro said...

I'm not always convinced that Elaine Pagels is rowing with both oars in the water, but there is good analysis of Augustine's theology in Adam and Eve and the Serpent.

Michael Dodaro said...

And there's this: Don't Blame Me for the Title Blame the Editor at NOR.

Ray said...

*YAAAAWWWWN* Oh, pardon my rudeness. Carry on.

scribe said...

Ray--

Do you have a subject you'd like to present for discussion? I don't think it has to be limited to music.

scribe said...

Mike--

I read your "Don't blame me for the Title" essay on masculinity and the Church.

I would say that I agree with much of it, as it does well describe the character of many western churches, but even so, the bridal mysticism is necessary and Biblical. After all, the Church is the Bride of Christ and we all will be attending the Marriage Feast of the Lamb that's spoken of in Revelation.

I don't think there is the excesses of femininity in the Orthodox Church, although the Theotokos is much revered. Moreover, she is not the goddess that the Catholics have made her, a practice which probably has made for the feminization of the Catholic church. In Orthodoxy, there are NO movements today to admit women into the priesthood, mainly because the escatological reasons for why the priest must be male (representing God as the masculine entity) and why the Church must then be a female entity is well understood by all.

Spiritual athleticism is still practiced today mainly by the men, although Orthodox nuns practice a modified form of it, according to their strength. Furthermore, there are no "orders" for either male or female ascetics. Because of that lack of organization, there are no Orthodox equivalents of competing spiritualities such as Franciscan or Dominican or Jesuit or Benedictine etc. that would either pull the Church into feminine or masculine tendencies.

Greek choirs are exclusively male, while the mixed Russian choirs can hardly call themselves properly Russian Orthodox unless they have good basses--the deeper the better. It used to be that the deacons were chosen for their bass voices, and the tendency today is for basses to gravitate to the role of deacon or reader.

In the Orthodox church, I don't get any feeling that one gender is trumping the other and I haven't heard from the men that they feel sissified for being Orthodox. I think our form of art looks masculine, as an icon's hard edges de-emphasizes the sensual in favor of the ascetic. There seems to be nearly twice as many male saints that are venerated to every female one. Not to mention all the soldier saints and angels dressed in full armor that I see in icons. But the female saints get their full due, nonetheless and no one feels slighted.

I have noticed that the Catholic church is very feminine in its arts--sometimes embarrassingly pretty and pink. The conservative Protestants are very masculine--excessively so, in my opinion. There's little room for art, the worship presentation is directed to one's head and not the heart, emphasizing analysis, learning and knowledge. There's no room for the mystical at all, and if any appears it's regarded with suspicion. My sister goes to a Protestant church and she says she feels left out of the real church life because it is so masculine.

So I find the Orthodox church to be a good "marriage" of masculine and feminine elements.

Ray said...

Scribe, I was just tweaking Mike. He knows I'm not a fan of opera, admittedly because I don't understand it. I've learned alot though recently from these posts and his other blogs.

Michael Dodaro said...

At least I have an excuse for sleeping through the last act of this opera. I'm two time zones behind you, out here on the left coast!

Michael Dodaro said...

I think I'm going to have to visit St. Nicholas, Karen. Everything you say about Orthodoxy intrigues me. I'm a baritone, not a bass, so I'm not sure I'm even qualified to be a deacon.

scribe said...

I think they will accept your baritone!

Sometime visit Vashon monastery that's near you--I sent you a link to it. It's an English-language monastery of the Russian church. Should be plenty of good singing there, if it's anything like the skete I visited in W. Virginia.

Michael Dodaro said...

That's Vashon Island, Washington. It takes a couple of hours to get there from here, including a ferry ride from West Seattle, but... .
One of these days.

scribe said...

Check out the diosese that would cover your area. This site will give you more info about the parishes, culture, etc.

http://www.wadiocese.com/eng/