Jules Massenet's Rarely Shown 'Thais' Arrives to L.A. Opera

 Robert Millard

There’s a reason Jules Massenet’s Thais has taken this long for its Los Angeles premiere. Wrongfully dismissed by those who are deaf to its breathtaking coloratura arias, this 1894 fin de siecle opera doesn’t often get a showing.

Placido Domingo, one of the greatest tenors of our time, is on the prowl for baritone roles ever since changing over in 2009. In the role of Athanael, the Cenobite monk out to save the soul of Alexandria's most celebrated courtesan, he has found one of opera's most demanding. He performs under the baton of Massenet specialist guest conductor Patrick Fournillier at L.A. Opera now through June 7. Thais is played by rising star Nino Machaidze.

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"Athanael is one of the special roles for the baritone," Domingo tells The Hollywood Reporter. "And having a great Thais like Nino Machaidze," he says about the Georgian-born soprano who he sang opposite in the same production last autumn in Seville.

"It's like a dream for a singer of my age to work with this kind of artist," says Machaidze. "I feel really honored to be onstage with him. I’m trying always to look and learn and take everything I can. He has so much energy, it’s amazing."

Five years ago Domingo gave his first performance as a baritone singing the title role in a 2009 production of Simon Boccanegra to a standing ovation at the State Opera in Berlin, a performance he toured with. He has since taken on other Verdi roles like Rigoletto in Beijing, and recently sang in a production of Nabucco at La Scala with plans to sing Macbeth in Berlin, Ernani at the Met, and a Puccini opera, Gianni Schicchi (Woody Allen’s 2008 production for L.A. Opera) in Madrid.

"It is a logical thing for me now to continue since I can sing baritone and I’m picking the roles," he explains. "Most baritone roles are Verdi roles and that’s what I’m doing but among other roles." The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, and at 73, Domingo is in full command of the stage opposite the 31-year-old Machaidze, who relished the idea of working with him again as well as singing under the baton of Fournillier, a new addition to the production.

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"He knows exactly this style of French music," she says during a break in rehearsals. "At one point I was breathing between notes and maestro said, 'Why are you doing this? You can do one long phrase.' I wasn’t thinking about it. It was written and I was doing it."

At the beginning of her career, Machaidze is as finicky choosing her roles as Domingo is in the final leg of his. She debuted at the 2008 Salzburg festival singing Romeo et Juliette and has since sung it in Venice as well as at La Scala. She sang Gilda in Rigoletto at Paris Opera and the Met, and Lucia di Lammermoor in Brussels before taking on Thais.

"It is one of the most difficult because this is not just a coloratura soprano, but it’s really lyrical and sometimes it becomes really dramatic and you have to give voice, give, give, give and then in another second everything changes," notes Machaidze, who will be back next season in La Traviata. "It's these things that are really difficult but I think it’s amazing. It’s for me."

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