DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the gold paint adorning a bevy of opera boxes glimmers under candlelight. A sweeping swath of burgundy velvet frames the stage. Offstage, a grand chandelier hovers over an actress’ boudoir, casting shards of light on an assortment of pillows, throws, ornate paintings and flowers.
These aren’t actual features in the Chandler, but rather the set of L.A. Opera’s production of Thaïs. By the time the third act rolls around, what remains will be literally a burned, abandoned shell.
The 1894 opera, which features music from French composer Jules Massenet and a libretto by Louis Gallet, opens Saturday, May 17, in Downtown Los Angeles. It stars two of opera’s biggest names: Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze and tenor Plácido Domingo, who also serves as general director of L.A. Opera. It opens the same week as another anticipated show, A Streetcar Named Desire, featuring soprano Reneé Fleming.
The destruction of the theater comes from the hand of titular character Thaïs, a beguiling actress and star of the stage in the late 19th century. Her life is changed with the arrival of the ascetic monk Athanaël, who attempts to convert her to religious chastity, but discovers that his goal comes with tragic consequences.
The character of Thaïs was originally written as an Alexandrian courtesan in Egypt under Byzantine rule, but received a twist when the show was produced for the Göteborg Opera in Sweden in 2010. There, production designer Johan Engels and director Nicola Raab placed the story in a more contemporary setting that reflected the era of Massenet.
“Our initial reaction was to do something different that really complemented Massenet’s style of music and the tone it evoked, the whole flavor of the late 19th century,” said Raab, who is also directing the six performances through June 7 in Downtown. “If you’re changing the period of an opera, it’s a good idea to look at the time it was written, and that inspired us.”
What hasn’t changed from previous productions is the challenge of singing the lead role. An infamously difficult part with shifts from virtuoso coloratura vocals to nuanced lyrical segments, Thaïs is taken on by only a handful of sopranos around the world, Machaidze said.
That made the 29-year-old a bit nervous when she debuted as Thaïs in Seville, Spain in 2012, but the jitters have now faded in favor of joy and appreciation for the score.
“I always say that when you open the score and start learning a part, you understand whether it’s for you or not,” Machaidze said. “Sometimes you open your mouth and the music just flows perfectly from inside. I felt that way about Thaïs.”
While the story is driven by Machaidze’s character, Athanaël is the tragic figure. Though he resists her charms, he struggles deeply with his attraction to Thaïs. Machaidze said Domingo, who also played the part opposite her in Seville, brings “incredible drama” to the role. She has used the chance to work with him as a learning opportunity.
“I’m looking to him to study what he does and soak in all of his experience, every little bit I can,” Machaidze said. “He has such incredible energy on stage. Even young artists don’t have this much energy. Maestro has a big, big presence.”
Thaïs stands as another piece in a diverse L.A. Opera season, which has featured everything from an avant-garde drama (Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach) to a Mozart opera with the whimsical and modern flourish of video projections (The Magic Flute).
“This has been a more forward-thinking season, if you will, and Thaïs is one we’ve never done before,” said L.A. Opera Senior Director of Production Rupert Hemmings. “That Plácido has done this particular production several times to great success also made it a perfect choice.”
The goal of offering different approaches to opera also explains the adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, which runs for three performances (May 18, 21 and 24). The opera, with music from André Previn and a libretto by Philip Littell, features an extended stage that brings the performers over the orchestra pit and closer to the audience while placing the orchestra in the background. It changes the dynamic of the performers and offers a different feel.
“Unlike our other productions, the music itself becomes part of the actual show in a visual manner, interacting as a part of the scene,” Hemmings said.
Streetcar features Fleming in the role of Southern belle Blanche DuBois. Blanche visits her sister in New Orleans without much notice and under strange circumstances, much to the chagrin of temperamental brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. Their interactions spiral downhill as Stanley discovers the truth about Blanche’s past.
Thaïs runs May 17-June 7 and A Streetcar Named Desire runs May 18-24 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 972-8001 or laopera.org.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014