Nino Machaidze as Thaïs in LA Opera's "Thaïs." (Robert Millard/LA Opera)
A swirling tale engulfed in religious eroticisms that pit the holy shambles of one man’s obsession against the fiery passions of the most hedonistic courtesan in ancient Alexandria, Jules Massenet’s 19th century masterpiece, “Thaïs,” directed by Nicola Raab, opens this week on May 17 at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for its Los Angeles debut.
The piece is part of LA Opera’s 2013-14 season.
Starring one of the most influential voices in the history of opera as the religiously ascetic Cenobite monk Athanaël, Placido Domingo brings his extensive skills as a conductor and opera administrator to the small cast.
With more than 3,600 total career performances as a tenor, as well as 500 opera performances and symphonic concerts with the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, and Vienna Philharmonic, Domingo plays the dynamic and pious monk who journeys to Alexandria after receiving disturbing visions of a priestess of Venus named Thaïs, played by the gorgeous coloratura soprano, Nino Machaidze.
On working with the internationally known and talented Domingo, Machaidze explained that the opportunity to work alongside the opera legend is an immense honor.
“Singing with Placido Domingo, I have to say I feel so, so, so lucky,” she said. “He’s a legend—and to be able to sing with him, I always feel so honored. He has big energy—he’s a big man—and always when I’m there I’m looking, I’m watching, and I’m trying to take everything from him to study and to learn the new things he’s doing.”
This is Machaidze’s fourth opera with LA Opera, with her 2009 debut as Adina in “L’Elisir d’Amore,” her 2011 show as Fiorilla in “The Turk in Italy” and as Juliette in “Romeo et Juliette,” along with performances with opera companies all over the world, and no other company has had quite an impact on her than the one in Los Angeles.
“I love the people; I love this theatre. It’s like every time that I come here I feel like I’m home,” a thoughtful Machaidze said.
“To be in the theatre—everybody, the company—everybody is so great. They’re doing everything to make you happy, and this is so incredible. It’s not just working, but also having fun and really mixing business with pleasure.”
The Georgian born opera singer admitted she’s never played a role quite as dynamic or difficult as Thaïs, who changes constantly throughout the opera and features some of the most intricate aspects of the score.
“I have to admit this is probably one of the most difficult roles in my repertoire, because it’s really just a mixture of the sound of singing and the coloratura lines. It requires a lot of energy and also a really dramatic approach,” Machaidze remarked.
“The other incredible thing that I’m always saying and repeating always, is that when you open the score for a new part or role, you understand right in that moment if the part is yours or not—if it fits well or not. And I have to say that Thaïs was one of these, and I feel that even though it is really difficult I feel very comfortable in this part.”
Thaïs, the courtesan of Alexandria when Athanaël takes his ambitious journey to convert her, is engaged neck-deep in all multitude of debaucheries and bodily pleasures, carnal desires that the monk fights desperately to resist.
However, despite being the current production of the world famous LA Opera, Massenet’s piece is not very renowned, even though the song “Méditation” is one of the most widely played violin pieces for soloists.
“Thaïs is not the most famous of operas, I really don’t understand why because musically it is so amazing and one of the most beautiful operas in my repertoire and written. It’s so strong, and really musically it’s amazing and also the acting part is so interesting,” Machaidze explained.
“Before when I was approached to do this part I didn’t know about this opera, and then I received the proposal to do this part I thought, ‘Oh, of course, this is amazing!’”
However, Machaidze sees the lack of fame as an opportunity and an honor, one that allows her to define and portray the character how she sees fit, “It’s incredible there are like three or four sopranos in the world doing this role, so it’s not really famous—and I hope it will be because it’s amazing.”
For Machaidze, her rise to fame in the opera arena has been one of swift reckoning—after gaining fame on European stages she moved to the U.S. where LA Opera took her in—but from the nubile age of six she knew opera was in her future.
“In Georgia, every family there is a piano forte—and all the parents are trying to give their child a musical education. My family loved music and they loved opera, my mother was a big fan of opera—and she brought me to school to play piano at six years old. Then when I was eight I started to sing opera and I never stopped,” Machiadze said of her early years.
“When you’re born to do something you just know, like I was born to do this, I was born to sing. I’m singing because I love to sing and I’m performing because I love to perform. I’m enjoying what I do, so I would like to do this for a long, long, long time.”
“Thaïs” will also star tenor Paul Groves as Nicias, bass Valentin Anikin as Palemon, Milena Kitic as Albine, soprano Hae Ji Chang as Crobyle, Cassandra Zoé Velasco as Mrytale, and Kihun Yoon as Servant.
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: May 17 – June 7
Contact: (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.org