Music by Jules Massenet
Libretto by Louis Galet after Anatole France
First performed: 1894
The desert of the Thebaid
On the banks of the Nile, a community of coenobites are eating their simple evening meal. They pray for one of their number, Athanaël, as they await his return from Alexandria. Entering slowly, as though crushed by exhaustion and sorrow, Athanaël, tells them about what he has seen: Thaïs, a dancer and courtesan, is leading the city in sinful ways. He confesses to his fellow monks that as a young man she had once tempted him, but that God had saved him and he had fled to the desert in search of spiritual peace. He resolves to save Thaïs’s soul; Palémon, however, warns him against any such action. As the night draws in, the coenobites pray before retiring to bed. Once asleep, Athanaël is tormented by a dream of Thaïs performing a mime of the pleasures of Aphrodite. When he awakes Athanaël interprets the vision as a sign from God and reaffirms his intention to save Thaïs.
The terrace of Nicias’s house in Alexandria
Athanaël has returned to Alexandria. Accompanied by a pair of slave girls, Nicias, a friend from Athanaël’s youth, greets him warmly. When Nicias learns the reason for Athanaël’s visit to the city, he reveals that he has purchased Thaïs’s services for the last week. Today is the final day and, following her performance at the theatre, she will come to his house for a banquet. The two slave girls Crobyle and Myrtale help Athanaël dress suitably for the feast: they cover his monk’s vestments with a flowing robe and trim his hair and beard.
Thaïs arrives in the company of actors and Nicias’s friends. She and Nicias, lovers for the past week, take their leave of one another. She is intrigued by the presence of a stranger – Athanaël – who casts fierce glances at her. Nicias warns her that this stranger has come to save her, but Thaïs taunts Athanaël with questions about why he keeps his true nature hidden and invites him to take part in their amusements. She stages one of her most lascivious performances at which Athanaël, scandalized, rushes out in disgust.
Thaïs is in introspective mood. She contemplates herself in a mirror and reflects on the shallowness of her life and the prospect of old age. Athanaël enters. She mocks him and warns him against loving her, though she is clearly intrigued by his promises of a love that will lead to eternal life. Athanaël suddenly tears off his robe to reveal his monk’s habit beneath, and curses the sins of the flesh. As Thaïs cowers in fear, Nicias’s voice is heard in the distance, reminding her of her past. Torn between self-loathing and fear of Athanaël, Thaïs collapses in an hysterical outburst.
Méditation religieuse: an orchestral interlude depicting Thaïs’s conversion.
In front of Thaïs’s house, Daybreak
Following a night of prayer, Thaïs intends to forsake her past and follow God. Athanaël instructs her to destroy her house and its contents: no trace of her former life can remain. She begs to be allowed to retain a little statue of Eros, which was given to her by Nicias. Athanaël refuses and dashes it to pieces on the ground. They go into the house as Thaïs prepares to carry out his orders. Nicias and his companions appear after a night of revelry. He demands more entertainment and an elaborate ballet ensues, at the end of which Athanaël announces Thaïs’s conversion. As Thaïs’s house is engulfed by flames, she and Athanaël are threatened by the crowd that has gathered in the street. Nicias distracts them by scattering handfuls of gold, allowing Thaïs and Athanaël to make their escape.
An oasis in the desert
Thaïs and Athanaël are making their way on foot to Mère Albine’s settlement. Exhausted by the journey and the fierce heat, Thaïs is close to collapsing but Athanaël goads her to continue. Only when he sees that her feet are bleeding does he relent and fetches her some water and fruit from the oasis. As they eat and drink, they hear the chanting of the White Sisters in the distance: Mère Albine and the sisters have come to greet them. Thaïs bids farewell to Athanaël before beginning her new life of prayer and penance. He is distraught when he realizes that he will never see her again.
The desert of the Thebaid. Evening. A storm threatens
Athanaël has returned to the community of coenobites on the banks of the Nile, but since his return he has not eaten or drunk anything. He confesses to Palémon that he has become obsessed with thoughts of Thaïs; the elderly monk reminds him that they should always avoid worldly people. Once asleep, Athanaël experiences another vision of Thaïs: she appears seductive at first, but thi is followed by an image of her dying. As the storm finally breaks, Athanaël rushes off into the night.
The garden of Mère Albine’s settlement
When Athanaël arrives the vision of the previous night is confirmed: Thaïs lies motionless, surrounded by the sisters who are praying for her. The sisters withdraw leaving Thaïs and Athanaël alone. She recalls their journey together through the desert and the role he played in her redemption. She remains oblivious to Athanaël’s confession of his repressed love for her and his renunciation of his religion – ‘Nothing is true but life and the love of human beings’. At the moment of death, she is granted a vision of the beauties of heaven. Athanaël is left in despair.
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