Comédie lyrique in three acts and seven scenes · Music by Jules Massenet · Libretto by Louis Gallet, based upon the eponymous novel by Anatole France · Premiere: Paris, 16th March 1894, Opéra Garnier
Set design & costume design
* Centre de Perfeccionament Plácido Domingo
Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana
Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana
25th, 28th, 31st March 2012
3rd, 12th, 15th April 2012
All performances start at 8:00 pm, except for Sundays and holidays, which are at 7:00 pm
Egypt, 4th century. The coenobite monk Athanaël returns to his religious brethren after travelling to Alexandria. When talking to Palémon, the leader of the congregation, and his colleagues, he explains how shocked he is after finding the city immersed in salaciousness and sin. Athanaël blames this spiritual disorder on the prostitute Thaïs, a consecrated priestess in the cult of Venus, who he remembers he met as a young man, before taking his vows.
The community retires to rest. Athanaël has a dream in which he sees Thaïs naked, and feels the need to return to Alexandria to try to redeem the courtesan. In spite of Palémon’s warnings not to meddle in other people’s lives, the monk sets off through the desert to the city of sin.
In Alexandria Athanaël visits a friend from his youth, Nicias, who is mad about Thaïs and has squandered a fortune on her. The monk explains about the mission that brings him to the city once again to him, but his friend believes that what he intends is impossible and laughs at him. Even so, he will help him and introduce him to Thaïs, who will be coming to his house for dinner that very evening. When she appears, the monk disapprovingly stares firmly at her. Thaïs is somewhat disconcerted when she hears his sermon and ignores him, although she is prepared to take up the challenge he proposes to go to the palace in order to try to convince her to convert to his faith.
Thaïs’s luxurious mansion. The prostitute is looking at herself in the mirror in her bedroom, meditating about what life will be like when her beauty withers. Athanaël arrives, who confesses that the love he feels for her is spiritual. He tries to persuade her to follow his doctrine, through which she will be blessed with eternal life and will be freed from sin and death. At first his apocalyptic words horrify Thaïs, but little by little she is overcome by an internal peace and she begins to feel happy. From outside the voice of Nicias is heard, calling her to carry on having fun. She rejects him, although she is still doubtful: she is debating between luxury and God. Athanaël then says that he will wait outside for her at dawn. Throughout the night Thaïs meditates along about the spirituality of her soul.
The prostitute leaves in search of the monk to tell him that she is ready to follow the path of holiness. He will lead her to a convent, but beforehand she must set fire to her mansion and get rid of her worldly possessions, which she agrees to, even rejecting a small statue she was especially fond of. Outside in the Plaza there is a commotion caused by Nicias and his friends who have won a lot of money gambling. When Athanaël tells them that Thaïs has consecrated herself to God and that she will be leaving with him, they all laugh at them. The crowd in the Plaza do not want Thaïs to go and make ready to stone her and the monk. So Nicias, with the intention of saving them, throws some gold coins on the ground to distract the crowd. Thaïs and Athanaël flee.
Desert area. Thaïs and Athanaël are on their way to the White Sisters’ monastery run by Mother Albine. They stop to rest in an oasis. She is exhausted and barely has the strength to walk. The monk explains that this suffering is the penitence she must go through to rid herself of her sins. But when he sees that Thaïs’ feet are bleeding, he feels sorry for her and goes in search of water. He kisses her feet and comforts her. She thanks him for his kindness and for having saved her soul. Once in the monastery the nuns welcome Thaïs. She bids the monk farewell and kisses his hands with love and admiration. Athanaël, knowing he will not see her again, falls apart.
Athanaël once again returns to the coenobite brethren. Twenty days have passed and he his unable to remove Thaïs from his thoughts. He now realises that he loves her as a human, and he also covets her. He then has a dream in which he sees Thaïs dying in the monastery courtyard. Distressed, he awakes and curses Heaven. He decides that he will go to see her for the last time, with the intention of possessing her.
Albine happily welcomes Athanaël. He is concerned and feels powerless when he sees the weakened body of Thaïs who is lying in the shade of a tree, surrounded by the love of the devout nuns. Penitence has harmed her health. Athanaël kneels before Thaïs and tells her that his feelings for her are physical love, desire. She, at Heaven’s gates and in a state of complete mystical ecstasy, does not understand the monk’s words and passes away inebriated in serenity and happiness.