Entertainment » Culture

’Thaïs’: Religious Eroticism on the Florida Opera Stage

by Andy Smith
Monday Apr 28, 2014

Florida Grand Opera has become known for taking exciting chances and its 2013-14 Season continues in this vein, concluding with Jules Massenet's beautiful, but seldom-produced, "Thaïs," opening May 3 at the Arsht Center.

Last presented at FGO in 1976, Thaïs is a co-production by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Boston Lyric Opera, and Opéra de Montréal conceived and designed by the team of Renaud Doucet and Andre Barbe.

Miami favorite Eglise Gutierrez sings the title role on May 3, 6, 15 and 17 and Angela Mortellaro performs on May 4 and 10, under the baton of Maestro Ramón Tebar. Kristopher Irmiter sings Athanaël, Martin Nusspaumer is Nicias and Adam Lau, Palemon.

A Happy Substitute
Originally, Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" was scheduled to close MGO's Season, but a last minute cancellation left CEO and General Director Susan T. Danis looking for a production to round out the schedule. "Thaïs" fit the bill for a number of reasons, foremost of which was the availability of two talented sopranos with the range to handle Massenet's heroine-Mortellaro and Gutierrez, a Miami favorite who's developed a strong working relationship with Maestro Tebar.

"Nobody can sing this part two days in a row. So we had to double-cast it," says Danis. "I know Angela and I think she will sing the heck out of it. The great part is that you can come twice and enjoy two great performances."

Though it's not in the standard repertoire, "Thaïs" is a highly accessible work, says Danis. "We want to stretch folks a bit and give them something they haven't had an opportunity to see before," she says, adding that many audience members will be familiar with music from Massenet's work (including the often anthologized "Meditation"), if not the full piece.

It also offers an exciting plot involving "a monk who - in the process of converting a courtesan from a life of sin - realizes he doesn't want to be a monk anymore," she says.

Taking on a Challenging Role
In her third appearance with Florida Grand Opera, local favorite Eglise Gutierrez will be singing "Thaïs" for the first time. "It’s a very difficult role. It has everything, both vocally and it’s challenging to me as an actress. She’s a courtesan who becomes a saint," says Gutierrez. "And the music is sublime."

In previous seasons the Cuban-born performer has sung the leads in "La Traviata" and "Lucia di Lammermoor." Donizetti’s troubled heroine is clearly a favorite. The Philadelphia-based coloratura named her three-year-old daughter Lucia.

Before coming to the U.S. in 1997, Gutierrez studied classical guitar. And though she always enjoyed singing, she "used to make fun of opera singers."

"I didn’t know any better until I began studying voice," she says, adding that her true conversion from reluctant convert to full-fledged fan occurred after she discovered the legendary Maria Callas. "I listed to her recordings over and over. I still listen to her and I discover new things every time I do."

With many friends and family in South Florida, Gutierrez finds performing in Miami exciting. "It’s a challenge and I want to do well," she says. "There are people here who gave me so much when I came from Cuba. People I love so much."

Maestro on the Go
A very busy man, in addition to his work with Florida Grand Opera, 35-year-old Ramón Tebar is music director of the Palm Beach Symphony and maintains a full international concert schedule. This year, he’ll travel from Barcelona to Brazil and back, conducting concerts for violinist Joshua Bell, soprano Maria Guleghina and many others.

Of FGO’s five productions this season, "Thaïs" is the fourth conducted by its busy music director, who describes it as a labor of love. "Although I’ve never conducted ’Thaïs’ before, it was one of the first productions I worked on many years ago; I was assistant conductor," says the Valencia-born Tebar, who came to the U.S. in 2005. "So I’m very much looking forward to conducting it."

He’s a big fan of this piece. "From my point of view, it’s weird why ’Thaïs’ isn’t in the standard repertoire. It has a strong plot and the music is sublime. I think it is among the greatest in the French repertoire."

"I’m also excited about all of our performers, beginning with Eglise, who is having an exciting international career," he says, also singling out tenor Martin Nusspaumer, a stand out from FGO’s Young Artists Program, who sang Ismaele in "Nabucco" earlier this season.

"He’s very young but I think he will have a wonderful career."

Jules Massenet’s "Thaïs" concludes Florida Grand Opera’s 2013-14 Season with performances on May 3, 4, 6, 10, 15 and 17. Tickets may be purchased by phone at (800) 741-1010 or online at www.FGO.org.


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