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LA Opera's concert of "Thaïs" at Segerstrom Center for the Arts was stunning

LA Opera's Thais in concert version, May 27, 2014 - Domingo singing and Patrick Fournillier conducting
LA Opera's Thais in concert version, May 27, 2014 - Domingo singing and Patrick Fournillier conducting
Nick Koon, Segerstrom Center for the Arts

LA Opera's concert of "Thaïs" at Segerstrom Center for the Arts was stunning

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The Los Angeles Opera (LA Opera) in just a few years has become one of the world’s top international Opera houses. Much of their success is due to the talents and vision of its indefatigable Artistic Director, international opera star and Maestro, Plácido Domingo.

While maintaining his position as Artistic Director and Conductor of two American opera companies, Plácido Domingo continues to have an extraordinary operatic and musical career, performing in all the major opera houses. Famous for over 35 years as one of the world’s foremost tenors, he now performs in select Baritone roles, still amazing audiences with his artistic and vocal powers.

The Segerstrom Center for the Arts brought the LA Opera and Plácido Domingo for a one night only performance this past Tuesday evening, May 27th in a semi-staged concert of Massanet’s grand opera “Thaïs.” The LA Opera will present four more, fully staged performances of "Thaïs" now through June 7th, 2014, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. For this semi-staged concert, The LA Opera created simple and effective stage direction for their singers who moved about the stage, as needed.

Segerstrom’s concert hall due to its smaller size, was a wonderful way to experience the singers up close and personal, but the acoustics were sometimes a problem. The overly live resonance in the hall caused the singer's voices to sound muffled or blurred at times.

“Thaïs” was composed in 1895 by the 19th century French composer, Jules Massenet. This rarely performed grand opera is set in ancient Alexandria, Egypt during the early days of Christendom and explores the theme of physical and spiritual love. Massenet wrote many operas, the most famous being “Manon” and “Werther”. His opera music is passionate and melodic yet deeply connected to nuances in the French language. His operas require expressive singers, capable of full voiced power as well as pointed phrasing of the text.

The plot of “Thaïs” focuses on the conflict between an austere and proud monk, Athanaël who has renounced the world, and the famous courtesan, Thaïs, who holds all of Alexandria in her sway. Determined to convert her and transform her way of life, Athanaël succeeds but in the process, discovers his own weakness realizing too late that he is hopelessly in love with her.

International French conductor, Patrick Fournillier, a specialist in Massenet’s operas, conducted the performance. He led the LA Opera orchestra and soloists with excellent flowing tempos and accompanied the soloists with sensitivity.

Though "Thaïs" is rarely performed, audiences may be more familiar with its famous violin solo called “Meditation”. This beautiful solo was performed with musicality and secure technique by LA Opera's concert master, Roberto Cani, during the Act 11 interlude, providing a special highlight during the opera concert.

Domingo’s ardent phrasing and grand bearing in the role of the conflicted and prideful monk, Athanaël, kept the audience spellbound. His singing was especially exciting in the duets with soprano Nino Machaidze when the music sat higher and more in the tenor part of his voice. While not as powerful in the lower range, his voice still holds great beauty and as an actor he was fascinating.

Nino Machaidze, as the alluring courtesan, Thaïs, was a good match for Domingo's masterful performance. The young opera star from Tbilisi, Georgia, Nino Machaidze has a gorgeous presence and flexible voice. Having performed the lighter soprano coloratura roles in all the major opera houses, her taking on the role of "Thais" - a heavier soprano part - hints at more dramatic roles for her in the future.

However, without sets and costumes, her portrayal seemed rather too straightforward. Lacking were those touches of the sophisticated world-weary courtesan who plays with men and power. While in the first two acts, she displayed excellent vocal control, in several places such as in the Act 2 mirror scene "Je suis seule" (I'm alone) her muddy French diction was a problem and the articulations of phrasing, so much a part of Massenet’s style were missing.

In the third act, including the aria "O messager de Dieu" Machaidze's voice and acting gained in dramatic edge, her phrasing and diction outstanding. Here, the transformation from proud courtesan to earnest and obedient nun was riveting. During the final duet with Domingo, Machaidze's exultant spiritual attainment sung to the melody of "Meditation" ending on high notes of solid gold, was grand opera at its best.

Paul Groves, the accomplished American tenor, sang the role of Nicias, the lover and patron of Thais. His singing and acting were excellent, though at the end of Act 11 some high notes sounded uncharacteristically strained.

The young Russian Bass, Valentine Aniken in the role of the elderly monk Palemon, gave an adequate performance. However, his lackluster acting and poor French diction detracted from his fine voice. Though only appearing briefly in Act as the Mother Superior, Albine, the celebrated mezzo-soprano, Milena Kitic was wonderful.

In the three remaining minor roles, were young artists of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program. Crobyle (servant of Thaïs) was sung by the lovely young soprano, Hai Ji Chang from S. Korea, who brought charm and style to her part. For this concert, the role of Myrtale, (2nd servant Thaïs) was sung by the exceptional lyric soprano, Rebecca Nathanson from Connecticut, who made her Opera Santa Barbara debut this spring. Servant of Nicias, was sung by Baritone Kihun Yoon from S. Korea, performing with verve and a first-class voice.

The LA Opera Chorus under the direction of Grant Gershon, sang Massenet's romantic music with great style. The men's section featured several solos for the male singers - all top-notch opera singers with beautiful voices and excellent French diction.

At the conclusion of the opera, the audience rose to its feet in a well-deserved standing ovation.

The ongoing collaboration with LA Opera and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts is a testament to the vision and mission of these organizations to bring great performances to Southern California audiences.

For more information on upcoming events at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts see: www.scfta.org/

For more information about the LA Opera and final performances of the season "Thaïs" see: www.LAOpera.org