Chapter Review of Thaïs (1922-23)

Review of Oscar Thompson in Musical America:


Essays French Role for First Time-Results Are Most Successful on Pictorial Side -Climactic Fall Brings Salvos of Applause-Whitehill in Old Part of "Athanael," Harrold as "Nicias"-Elaborate New Settings and Colorful Ballet

Add to a typically French literary and musical conception of a Greek courtesan in Alexandrian Egypt a very substantial seasoning of Viennese espieglerie and the result is a charmer not quite like any other Magdalen of the operatic stage.

Doubtless with the intent of making timely capital of the personal popularity of Maria Jeritza, the Metropolitan revived Massenet's "Thais" Friday evening of last week. The Viennese soprano had never sung the role previously and French was a language new to her. The opera, which had been an ornament of the Manhattan in the days of Hammerstein and had lingered in the repertoire of the Chicagoans by virtue of its identification with the glittering personality of Mary Garden, but which failed to establish itself at the Metropolitan when given with Geraldine Farrar in the titular rôle in the seasons of '17-'18 and '18-'19, was newly and elaborately appareled, with scenery by Joseph Urban. Louis Hasselmans conducted and Wilhelm von Wymetal had charge of the stage. In the cast, besides Mme. Jeritza as Thais, were Clarence Whitehill as Athanael, repeating a characterization familiar from the Metropolitan's earlier representations of the work, and Orville Harrold as Nicias, a first-time assumption of the character. Rosina Galli, Giuseppe Bonfiglio and the corps de ballet danced. The audience was what Metropolitan audiences are supposed to be-both brilliant and large. So much for the record.

Beyond the bare facts of this bald recital lies the debatable ground of individual opinion. For those to whom every rôle essayed by Mme. Jeritza has had its revelations, she achieved another triumph. Among equally sincere and intelligent observers who have never been convinced that she has exceptional gifts either as a singer or an actress, the very opposite feeling prevailed. The lobby and corridors buzzed with comparisons between the three exponents of the part, some of which were as unfavorable to the newest interpreter as others-and these the more numerous--were favorable. The applause of the evening was a variable and not very conclusive barometer, but it was sharper and more spontaneous at the end of the first scene of the second act than was noted at any time at either of the earlier revivals of the year.

An Unexpected Trump Card

The scene mentioned brought a surprise somewhat similar to Mme. Jeritza's unexpected delivery of "Vissi d'Arte" from a position prone on the floor in "Tosca," and her exciting tumble down the steps in "Cavalleria Rusticana." It, too, savored of the acrobatic. When Athanael strode from her boudoir, after her defiance of his efforts to appeal to her spiritual nature, she sprang after him with a leap that rattled the boards of one of Urban's platforms; then, with a hysterical laugh and gestures of frenzied helplessness, she tottered and fell to the stage-level below, the crash resounding through the opera house. Curtain calls came thick and fast, and this was the point of highest enthusiasm of the evening. Once mare the unexpected had proved a trump card, but it prompted-as the "Tosca" and "Cavalleria" device did-doubts as to the continuance of this excitement when the unexpected had become the expected.

For the present reviewer, Mme. Jeritza was not a Thais whose spell was that of voice or of character denouement. She was a statuesque blonde beauty, with a brilliant personality, a distinct flair for pictorial effect in spite of angularity of movement attended by much inequality of song. A device such as that which stirred the clamor at the end of the scene referred to is not character portraiture.Thais might sing from a position prone on the floor as logically as Tosca, and Sieglinde (as Florence Easton once demonstrated) can roll down steps quite as appropriately as Santuzza. As an opera, "Thais." with its musical treacle, is shallow and insipid, but the courtesan who becomes a nun has large possibilities that have nothing to do with hysterical laughs and climactic falls. It was in measuring short of these possibilities for character delineation that the writer believes Mme. Jeritza, whatever the true extent of her popular success may be found to be, failed to achieve the goal which alone can make this musically vapid opera worth the doing.

Mme. Jeritza a Lovely Picture

From first to last, the tall soprano was a feast for the eye, even when she combined pink and red in one costume and blue and green in another. Her shining hair, her very bright eyes, her devastating smile, and her splendid figure, plus the intangible but very positive force of her unusual personality, yielded little opportunity for opera glasses to be diverted elsewhere. But there was virtually nothing of the voluptuous and luxurious woman of Alexandria in the radiant and girlish blonde of the first act. Sweetness and subdued amiability passed as the badges of spirituality in the scenes of Thais' conversion, penitence and death. Nature gave this singer vigor as well as charm, but it did not intend her to be sensuously insinuating. In repose, her Thais was highly decorative. In movement, it was frequently wanting in grace. Of her singing, much could be written, for it abounded both in well-sung phrases of tonal appeal and in characteristic faults-scooping and occasional forcing of high tones and a lack of quality in low ones. She clipped some notes that should have been sustained-as in the close of the duet of the Oasis scene, and again in departing with the sisters-as if not altogether sure of herself; yet one had only to remember how much less well sung the duet referred to was when essayed by Miss Garden and Mr. Dufranne at recent Chicago performances of the work to take pleasure in Mme. Jeritza's and Mr. Whitehill's nicely modulated delivery of it.

Mine. Jeritza did not writhe and wriggle and attitudinize as Miss Garden has done in the role in recent seasons. The new Thais was free of the grotesque and the ridiculous. But for one observer, at least, it was chiefly pictorial, with personality, rather than portraiture, its most potent power. Blonde hair and piquant features had more to do with its effectiveness than facial play or tonal coloring. In spite of what has been written and said of it, the unbosoming of the second scene of the first act was not one of Zaza-like daring. Those who found anything sensational in it must have had X-Ray lenses. Athanael swooned at the sight of most discreet, if semi-transparent pink draperies.

Mr. Whitehill has been in better voice, though perhaps the orchestra was at fault in the first scene, when his tone did not carry through. His depiction of Athanael had sternness, strength, and conviction-a study altogether worthy of a place beside his noble impersonations in the Wagner music-dramas, if lacking the sympathy of the unforgettable Athanael of Maurice Renaud. The outburst which preceded that of Thais in the boudoir scene was an achievement of no little power.

Mr. Harrold made more than a puppet of Nicias. He succeeded, in fact, in creating a character where the librettist and the composer failed to do so. Here was a Nicias who suggested the banquet table, Bacchanalian orgies, luxurious and effeminizing ease. He sang the music better than New York has heard it sung since the Hammerstein days when Dalmores appeared with Miss Garden and Renaud. Of the lesser parts, it is only necessary to mention that Louis D'Angelo sang sonorously as Palemon and that Charlotte Ryan and Minnie Egener united their voices agreeably as Crobyle and Myrtale. It was, curiously enough, a cast without a single French artist.

Ballet a Colorful Feature

The ballet of the second scene of Act II was one of the most colorful of recent Metropolitan productions, though attuned to some of the emptiest measures of a score singularly lacking in musical ideas. Miss Galli's dancing with Bonfiglio had its customary charm.

Mr. Hasselmans conducted as one who knew every detail of the music and had a firm command of his orchestra. But he obscured the voices in the [first] scene and played the introduction to the one following without the delicacy and lightness the music requires. The street music of the second scene of Act II was, on the other hand, insufficiently emphasized and as a result lost much of Oriental tang. The "Meditation" was not altogether flawless as to intonation, but was smoothly played.

Review of Oley Speaks in the Ohio State Journal of December 25, 1922

Oley Speaks Describes triumph of Jeritza in Massenet's 'Thais'

The most interesting musical event of the past week was the first presentation here in four years of Massenet's opera, "Thais," at the Metropolitan Opera. It was the late Oscar Hammerstein who first produced this much-discussed opera in this country. His presentation was made at the Manhattan Opera House here 14 years ago and Mary Garden sang the title role. Since that time the name of Miss Garden has been closely associated with "Thais." Previous to Miss Garden's performance of "Thais" in this country she had made a great reputation in the role in Paris. Miss Garden made her first reputation in the French capital, where she was idolized by the Parisians.

The first performance of "Thais" in this country was a real event in that musical season and since that time Mary Garden's assumption of the title role has remained one of her finest impersonations in the visits of the Chicago Opera to this city. "Thais" was one of its most potent drawing cards and the house was invariably crowded when this opera was put on. Some four years ago "Thais" was brought forward at the Metropolitan Opera for the delectation of Geraldine Farrar, Miss Farrar made a distinct success in it and it was sung a number of times in that season.

The production this past week was made for the purpose of showing the much-discussed Maria Jeritza in the role of Thais. When Jeritza made her debut here last season in "Die Tote Stadt" and in her later appearances in "Tosca" it was assumed that before long the Viennese soprano would have a fling at "Thais," for she showed such fine qualities in these roles that it was assured she would make a success of the Alexandrian siren. For this event the Metropolitan was jammed to every inch of space despite the fact that the night was one of the most inclement experienced here this winter. A gorgeous new scenic equipment for the production was made by Josef Urban and new costumes for the opera were provided.

Jeritza made a distinct success in the role. Her first entrance upon the stage was dramatic in the extreme; in any event the entrance ofThais into the opera is of unusual effectiveness, for some moments before the time for this personage to enter into the scene the chorus is shouting something like "here she comes" etc. When Jeritza came upon the scene she was a vision of loveliness. Her natural beauty, her grace of bearing and her fine dramatic instincts make for an ideal Thais. Throughout the performance she more than justified the prediction that she would make much of this role. Her great moments came in the first scene of the second act in the long colloquy with the priest, Athanael. She acted this scene with tremendous power which culminated in a striking stage fall which made the audience gasp. As a matter of fact, she fell with such force that there was a resounding thud throughout the auditorium, which made the audience wonder whether or not she had been injured.

There was a tremendous demonstration of enthusiasm for Jeritza at the close of this act. She was brought before the curtain again and again to acknowledge the applause. It is reported that when the singer left the stage for her dressing room after this act she tripped and fell down several stairs and was for the moment all but unconscious. There was a long delay before the last act went on and for a time there was a possibility that the opera could not continue. However, it did and to a fine success. Jeritza sang with her accustomed power and fine tone. It is such a fresh, vibrant quality of voice that well fits into the music in "Thais." Her singing of the "mirror song" was most excellent and in the many scenes with Athanael she not only sang with skill but acted with tremendous powers.

There is no question that in Jeritza the Metropolitan Opera has one of the most interesting personalities in the operatic world. The drawing powers of the singer are great, for in her every performance this season the house has been sold out. It is reported that the seats for the first performance of "Thais" were all sold within an hour.

Second in importance in the presentation of "Thais" comes Clarence Whitehill in the role of Athanael. It is a fine role in the first place, as it offers much singing and many fine dramatic moments. Mr. Whitehill, as always, acted with superb ability; there is no finer actor in all the Metropolitan Company than Mr. Whitehill. Of course, we except Chaliapin, who is such a personality in himself that he seems to stand apart from every other member of the organization. Mr. Whitehill's assumption of Athanael was so fine from every viewpoint that it became one of the outstanding features of this first "Thais." The American baritone sang with profundity of tone and made the most of every moment in the role. The other characters in "Thais" are of little importance; it is a two role opera. However, Orville Harrold impersonated effectively the role of Nicias and smaller parts were well taken care of by Marian Telva, Minnie Egener, Charlotte Ryan, Louis d'Angelo and Vincenzo Reschiglian.

Massenet has written much for the ballet in "Thais." The Parisians must have their ballet, so every composer who wrote for that public had to say something for the ballet. Wagner had to interpolate some ballet music for some of his operas before the French public would listen to them. In "Thais" the music for the ballet is varied and extended. It offered Rosina Galli and Giuseppe Bonfiglio, the premiere dancers at the opera here, rare moments to exhibit their skill as interpreters of musical rhythm. Miss Galli, especially, did work of classic beauty. She is a great artist in her line and has well been compared with Pavlova.

When all is said and done relative to this production of "Thais," much credit must go to the conductor, Louis Hasselmans, for the success of the evening. Mr. Hasselmans had the performance in hand at every moment and he knows well the traditions of the score, having conducted the opera many times in Paris. The familiar religious "Meditation," before the third act, was beautifully performed by the orchestra and it received an ovation.

Jeritza has added another impersonation to her repertoire at the opera here which will no doubt have the popularity of her Tosca. It may be said that this performance of "Thais" by Jeritza was her first on any stage and also it was the first time she had ever sung a role in French. It will be seen that Jeritza had something to accomplish on this particular evening. She will go farther in the role in subsequent performances, that is sure. It was an arduous night for Jeritza, but she came through with flying colors.