Placido Domingo as Athanael in "Thaïs." (Robert Millard/LA Opera))
The much anticipated and lesser known of Jules Massenet’s French works descends upon the LA Opera this weekend for its unveiling on May 17 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, bringing with it a tempest of fervent emotion that stems from the carnal and spiritual themes the opera is rooted in.
“Thaïs,” which will be brought to life by international director Nicola Raab in her LA Opera debut, tells the fiery tale of the monk Athanaël, who journeys to Alexandria after experiencing disturbing visions of the courtesan of Venus, Thaïs. Athanaël aims to convert the lustful woman to Christianity and ultimately succeeds in discovering his own heart to be the one corroded by the desires of the flesh.
Portrayed by the young and talented Nino Machaidze, Thaïs renounces her voluptuous lifestyle and her sins against love on her deathbed, just as Athanaël begins to accept the corruption of his soul and relents to the unbearable lust he has for the courtesan.
Plácido Domingo, one of the most dynamic and capable voices of opera in the last 50 years, steps into the robes of Athanaël, bringing with him the experience of his extensive and mountainous career, as well as the arduous flair he has been known to electrify and embody his roles with.
Although not as renowned as Massenet’s other works, “Thaïs” is a singularity in the arena of opera due to its large baritone role for Athanaël, which Domingo – who was a tenor for most of his career and only recently, in 2010, transitioned to baritone –explained was a challenge to master.
“The acting part comes stronger, because most of the baritone roles, they are very, very deep acting roles,” Domingo explains. “And, of course, now with Athanaël, which is one of the hardest baritone roles and one of the longest baritone roles. [I am] on the stage the whole time, practically, and finding the approval of the public and the house.”
The move to baritone, which was decided early in his career because of his aspiration to sing Giuseppe Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” was at first criticized mildly by critics, but over the years has slowly been accepted, as he has taken on stronger baritone roles – roles Domingo has crushed with the same genius he manifested in his tenor performances.
“Some of them miss me as a tenor; it’s logical. I have the same [feelings], but the orchestra has been very happy, my colleagues very happy,” he says. “The important thing, I feel, is that the public reacts. That’s the important thing for me: the public.”
Domingo embraces the lack of notoriety for “Thaïs” as not only an opportunity in his career to define the role, but to bring the previously unknown, onerous and passionate opera to one of the largest companies in the United States.
“Massenet is one of the underestimated composers because, aside from the famous ‘Manon,’ he has such an amount of big works. His theatrical feeling, his romantic feeling, the inspiration of his music – I think the public is going to be very lucky,” Domingo says of the opera.
He further delved into his personal crusade as the general director of the LA Opera to bring pieces from around the world that otherwise might not ever see the stage and curtain call to light.
“It’s very difficult to choose from all the great, popular repertoire: the Verdi, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, the verismo, French and Russian. It’s also difficult to find the rare jewels,” Domingo ardently mentions. “For instance, Renée [Fleming] and I did another Massenet opera, ‘Hérodiade,’ in San Francisco. It’s just [about having] the itch, and Renée and me, we have [a feeling of] what would be good, what would be special, for us.”
It was that same itch that drove Domingo to pursue the role of Athanaël, a performance that he promises will wow audiences and create a level of intimacy through both the acting and a score that is unlike anything they have ever experienced. Specifically, the “Méditation,” which has remained, since the first performance of “Thaïs,” one of the premier solo violin scores in the world.
“‘Thaïs” is going to be a total surprise for the people,” Domingo reveals. “It is for every violinist, in any orchestra, who has played the ‘Méditation’ of ‘Thaïs’ in his life. It is a beautiful piece in the context of the opera, not only as a violin solo, but in the rest of the opera, especially at the end, in the very last act. This is something that really makes you sob and cry.”
In addition to his role as Athanaël in “Thaïs” for the summer season of the LA Opera, Domingo is flexing his vocal stamina, explaining that he is currently working on three more roles for the 2014-2015 seasons for opera companies around the world.
“I have three new roles next year, I will be singing ‘Macbeth’ in Berlin and ‘Ernani’ at the Metropolitan, then I will do ‘Gianni Schicchi,’ first in Madrid and then here in Los Angeles,” he shares.
With more than 3,600 performances under his belt, the 57-year-old veteran shows no signs of abandoning the stage anytime soon. His exploration of all the endless operas that fill the world is not yet over; his thirst not yet quenched.
“I don’t know how long I will sing. As long as I am feeling well, I will be searching for things we can do,” a thoughtful Domingo ponders. “I think that what we have in front of us, we haven’t lost that itch that we want to give something back.”